In an exclusive report Friday that outraged human rights advocates worldwide, The Guardian revealed that Canadian police wanted snipers on standby for a January 2019 crackdown on Indigenous land defenders who were blocking construction of a natural gas pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Guardian reported on official records — documents as well as audio and video content — reviewed by the newspaper related to the police “invasion” that led to 14 arrests:
Notes from a strategy session for a militarized raid on ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation show that commanders of Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), argued that “lethal overwatch is req’d”—a term for deploying snipers.
The RCMP commanders also instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” ahead of the operation to remove a roadblock which had been erected by Wet’suwet’en people to control access to their territories and stop construction of the proposed 670km (416-mile Coastal GasLink pipeline (CGL).
Indigenous land defenders established the Gidimt’en checkpoint — where the police operation took place — as part of a broader battle against pipeline builder TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada. The RCMP action was an attempt to enforce a court injunction that came in response to the Unist’ot’en camp established on Wet’suwet’en territory in opposition to the pipeline.
Chilling euphemisms of ‘sterlizing the site’ and using ‘lethal overwatch’: police approaches to Indigenous protestors in Canadahttps://t.co/4jXMQOqUzo
— Lucy Delap (@suff66) December 20, 2019
Guardian readers responded to the report with swift condemnation of the RCMP’s behavior.
“This is abhorrent and unconscionable,” tweeted Steve Wilcox, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. American author and journalist Michael Deibert summed up the revelations in one word: “Monstrous.”
Some critics highlighted how police conduct contrasted with the Canadian government’s truth and reconciliation efforts launched under Conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and continued under the country’s current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau.
Frances Moore, operations and national outreach manager at the Indigenous youth-led Canadian nonprofit group We Matter, wrote on Twitter that she is “saddened that it’s taking leaked documents from the RCMP for Canadians to believe” that police were prepared to show force against land defenders.
Specifically, according to The Guardian:
The documents show that ahead of the raid, the RCMP deployed an array of surveillance, including heavily armed police patrols, a jet boat, helicopter, drone technology, heat-sensing cameras, and close monitoring of key land defenders’ movements and social media postings.
Police established a “media exclusion zone,” blocking reporters from accessing the area. They took care to hide their carbine rifles on the approach to the roadblock because the “optics” of the weapons were “not good,” according to one of the documents.
The documents also show close collaboration between the RCMP and TC Energy: police officers attended company planning sessions and daily “tailgate” meetings, and were privy to CGL’s legal strategy.
The RCMP were prepared to arrest children and grandparents: “No exception, everyone will be arrested in the injunction area,” a document reads. Another makes reference to possible child apprehension by social services—a troubling disclosure given the violent history of residential schooling in Canada and the disproportionate number of Indigenous children currently in the child welfare system.
Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson (Howilhkat) connected the RCMP’s militarized approach to the early 2019 operation to a lengthy record of colonial violence.
“In our experience, since first contact, RCMP have been created by the federal government to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands,” Huson told The Guardian. “They have proven [that] through their harassment of my people to support Coastal GasLink in invading our territories.”
The indigenous group claims the federal government has no rights to the native lands.
Although an RCMP spokesperson declined to comment on the specific content of the records reviewed by The Guardian, they told the newspaper that while planning the raid, police took into account the remote location and “the unpredictable nature of what we could face.”
The Guardian noted that its report came as the Wet’suwet’en camps are preparing for a court ruling on an injunction sought by TC Energy that would permanently restrict the Indigenous land protectors from blockading pipeline sites.