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RCMP arrest 5 while executing search warrant at Wet'suwet'en protest camp

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RCMP officers executed a search warrant at a protest camp on Wet'suwet'en traditional territory near the under-construction Coastal GasLink pipeline Wednesday.

An image of the warrant shared by the camp's occupants indicates that police are investigating an alleged theft under $5,000, and that they planned to search the camp for a STIHL chainsaw with a specific serial number, "olive drab coloured masks" and "coyote brown fatigues" that would serve as evidence in the case.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Mounties from the Houston, B.C., detachment said that the search related to what they called "another act of violence against pipeline personnel at a forestry road work site."

According to police, Coastal GasLink security reported that one of its workers had been "swarmed by a group of individuals wearing masks and camouflage at the 43-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road" at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, March 26.

"The group fired flares and gained access to the work vehicle when the worker left the area because of the intimidation," the RCMP statement reads.

"These persons allegedly poured liquid onto the vehicle and stole a chainsaw from the truck bed."

Police said they arrested five people while executing the search warrant on Wednesday at the Gidimt'en checkpoint, located at the 44-kilometre mark of the Morice Forest Service Road.

The arrests were for obstruction, police said, alleging that four of those arrested had refused to co-operate with police direction and one attempted to prevent officers from executing the warrant.

ARRESTS CALLED 'BOGUS'

In video of Wednesday's incident shared by the Indigenous land and water defenders and their allies who occupy the Gidimt'en checkpoint, Mounties can be heard instructing people to leave the camp to allow police to conduct their search.

The occupants refuse, telling officers to wait and allow them to speak to a lawyer.

CTV News asked RCMP whether any of the items listed on the warrant were found at the camp, but police declined to answer that question.

In their own statement, the protesters called the arrests "bogus" and described the search as a "raid" by the BC RCMP's Community-Industry Response Group.

"This harassment and intimidation is exactly the kind of violence designed to drive us from our homelands," said Sleydo’, a spokesperson for the Gidimt'en checkpoint, in the statement.

"The constant threat of violence and criminalization for merely existing on our own lands must have been what our ancestors felt when Indian agents and RCMP were burning us out of our homes as late as the '50s in our area. The colonial project continues at the hands of industry’s private mercenaries–C-IRG."

The BC RCMP says on its website that the C-IRG was "created in 2017 to provide strategic oversight addressing energy industry incidents and related public order, national security and crime issues." 

The RCMP's Civilian Review and Complaints Commission is currently investigating the C-IRG, reviewing its files related to protests at the Coastal GasLink pipeline and at forestry sites on Vancouver Island and in the Kootenays to determine whether the group followed the law and its own policies. 

COASTAL GASLINK RESPONDS

Coastal GasLink confirmed the RCMP's report that a worker had been "swarmed by masked and camouflaged individuals" Sunday night, saying in a statement that it's thankful no one was injured.

The company said it is co-operating with the Houston RCMP, and referenced concern for safety of its work crews and the surrounding communities.

Coastal GasLink framed the swarming attack as part of a pattern of violence directed against its workers. While the company didn't specifically reference any other incidents, there was at least one notable one in February 2022.

At that time, approximately 20 people, some of them armed with axes, attacked a Coastal GasLink worksite, causing millions of dollars in damage. No one was injured in that incident, which remains unsolved despite a construction industry group offering a $100,000 reward for information on the case. 

"The safety of our workforce, contractors, local Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, and the public is paramount," Coastal GasLink said in its statement Wednesday.

"This incident continues to highlight acts of violence that have put people, property, and the environment at risk. The many women and men on our project deserve to work in a safe environment, without fear of these dangerous acts, while they provide for their families and communities."

A HISTORY OF CONFLICT 

Tensions between the RCMP and those aligned with hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation have been high for years, with the Coastal GasLink pipeline as a focal point.

The pipeline is being constructed on the nation's traditional territory, and while its owner has agreements with elected Indigenous governments along the route, hereditary chiefs oppose the project.

The conflict prompted nationwide blockades in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en protesters in February 2020.

More recently, Coastal GasLink has faced ballooning costs and multiple fines for environmental violations

According to the pipeline opponents at Gidimt'en checkpoint, Wednesday's search and arrests come just days before planned protests at the annual general meeting of the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the corporations providing funding for the project.

In the land defenders' statement, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Na'Moks described the RCMP's actions as "harassment, and exactly what Royal Bank of Canada is funding."

"Ahead of its shareholder meeting next week, RBC continues to fund corporate colonialism, and displace Indigenous peoples from our lands at gunpoint – all for a fracked gas pipeline we cannot afford now or in the future," Na'Moks said. "In the context of the theft of our ancestral land, alleging stolen saws and clothing is outrageous." 

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs also expressed outrage at Wednesday's arrests.

"These arrests continue the troubling pattern of police intimidation of Indigenous people asserting their rights to access their own territories and rejecting fossil fuel extraction," the UBCIC said in a statement.

"UBCIC unequivocally stands with those standing up for the title and rights of the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en." 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Spencer Harwood

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