More than a dozen people were arrested Monday afternoon as armed police, some dressed in camouflage fatigues, broke down homemade barriers at a checkpoint on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory on the Morice River road in the B.C. interior.
Still, hereditary Wet’suwet’en leaders pledged to keep fighting.
“We may have lost this battle but not the war,” said Chief Madeek, hereditary leader of the Gidimt’en clan, whose checkpoint outside the Unist’ot’en camp was toppled first.
Reports from people at the scene said some RCMP officers burst from vehicles idling at the site for most of the day.
Carmen Nikal, 72, was at the check point.
“They (police) spent some time trying to get the barricade down and I stepped away… and there were a couple of the protestors who had secured themselves to the barricade inside, I’m not exactly sure how the rest of us were standing and singing,” she said in an interview on Facebook.
“The only thing I could do was try to block the path between the bus and the bridge. I’m not a big person but I was big enough to stand and they had asked me to move and I said ‘No I’m not moving’ and he said, ‘Well, we can arrest you,’” she said.
“And I’m proud to have been arrested.”
Nikal was taken to the RCMP detachment in Houston, 45 minutes away, processed and released Monday evening.
The police arrived in a convoy around 9 a.m. before erecting a road block and what the RCMP called an exclusion zone to keep members of the public and the media out of the area.
“It’s for public safety,” said a Mountie, whose name was not visible, standing in front of a mobile command centre.
He declined to explain the risk and referred questions to the media liaison, who couldn’t be reached because of the lack of cellphone service at the site.
There were accusations the RCMP blocked cellular service in the area during the operation. An accusation the police deny.
After the police road block went up, Madeek joined three other hereditary chiefs in being allowed in to meet with officials from Coastal GasLink at the checkpoint.
“We tried to reason with them,” he told supporters later gathered around a bonfire outside the roadblock.
“We told them they don’t have our permission to be here.”
But the company, a subsidiary of TransCanada, refused to negotiate, added hereditary Chief Namoks.
“They said they had an (interim) injunction and that’s all they needed.”
Nikal said the police went over top of the barricade and there was a scuffle between the advancing RCMP and the first line of Gidimt’en clan members.
Police then made their way to a line of women that included spokesperson Molly Wickham.
The women were taken into custody and driven to face a Justice of the Peace in Prince George, B.C., more than four hours away by car.
“I’m not sure why… they would be taken to Prince George,” said Nikal. “Because I didn’t see the women in that line including Molly doing anything that I didn’t do which is just stand your ground.”
According to a statement from the RCMP Monday evening, the arrests are specific to the Gidimt’en check point.
“As of 6:45 p.m., there were 14 persons arrested from the blockade set up by [Gidimt’en] on Morice West Forest Service Road for various offences including alleged violations of the injunction order,” said the statement.
COURT SIDED WITH COMPANY
The injunction granted Dec. 14 in B.C. Supreme Court agreed the company could access some Unist’ot’en land to prepare for the LNG natural gas pipeline.
The company wants access through the Unist’ot’en camp 20 kilometres up the Morice River road from the Gidimt’en check point to complete preparatory work on the 670-kilometre pipeline.
The camp has been standing for nearly a decade to prevent three proposed pipelines from cutting through Wet’suwet’en territory.
But now access is almost guaranteed.
Although it’s not clear when RCMP will move on the camp and its occupants.
The company has signed agreements with elected representatives of 20 First Nations along the pipeline route.
But the hereditary clans of the Wet’suwet’en say they are the caretakers of the land and oppose any fossil fuel development.
“We know who we are and we stand strong,” Chief Na’Moks said. “We don’t trust LNG and we don’t trust the RCMP.”
“This is a crisis,” added Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in Vancouver.
His organization – the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs – accused the RCMP in a statement of intimidating peaceful protesters.
“It is insulting and upsetting that contract workers for LNG can go onto our land (today) and Wet’suwet’en people can’t,” said Na’Moks.
“This calls into question the democracy that is Canada.”
The road block, failed dialogue with the company and arrests were a dramatic end to an increased police presence in Houston, a town about 45 minutes from the camp, over several days.
“We will keep fighting,” added Madeek. “We have too much to lose.”