More than 50 people gathered in front of the RCMP detachment in Whitehorse on Jan. 8 in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, whose traditional territory was breached by the police force this week. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Yukoners amass at RCMP detachment in support of Wet’suwet’en

The demonstration was one of more than 50 across Canada and internationally

More than 50 people gathered in front of the RCMP detachment in Whitehorse in solidarity with a northern British Columbia First Nation, whose traditional territory was breached by the police force this week.

Yukoners showed up on Jan. 8 despite some of the most frigid temperatures in Canada bearing flags and placards, one reading, “Shame on the RCMP.” It was so cold that Ron Rousseau’s hide drum broke after a few beats.

The demonstration comes a day after the RCMP stormed the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en, arresting 14. It aligns with over 50 other demonstrations in Canada and internationally — one, for instance, was organized in Italy.

Relations between Indigenous people and the federal government have soured in relation to plans to move natural gas via pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, B.C.

The company behind the project is Coastal GasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada Pipelines Ltd.

While the First Nation’s elected band council signed off on the pipeline project, all Wet’suwet’en clans and their houses, headed by hereditary chiefs, are vehemently opposed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “has turned his back on Indigenous people,” said Mark Rutledge, who was part of the Whitehorse demonstration.

“Have the RCMP back off and let diplomacy resume,” he said, adding that there are better ways to resolve disputes than using militarized force.

News photos depict RCMP tactical units donning army-green fatigues and armed with what appear to be high-calibre rifles.

When the Liberal government came into power, Rousseau said, they spoke of a better relationship with Indigenous people. The actions by the RCMP contradict this when they breached a checkpoint, a move “they have no right to do.”

“Removing Indigenous people from their lands, especially hereditary chiefs, is a wrong way to go,” he said. “This is going on across the nation, of Indigenous peoples standing together for their rights, even at -35 C.”

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a strongly worded statement on social media that there was “no reconciliation” in what occurred on Jan. 7.

“This use of force against peaceful people is a violation of human rights and First Nations’ rights,” he said. “If this was really about the ‘rule of law,’ then governments would be honouring the rights and title of First Nations in their traditional territories, which are recognized by Canada’s own courts.”

Members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation had set up a camp and a checkpoint in the area, southwest of Houston, B.C., which they said was to control access.

There’s a second checkpoint called the Unist’ot’en camp, which was the first to be constructed years ago.

In a statement, RCMP say officers spoke with representatives of the camp about the removal of a road block along the roadway, and set up a meeting between hereditary chiefs and Coastal GasLink.

But police say at about 3 p.m., they realized the matter couldn’t be resolved and they took action.

There was a communication failure that afternoon, with several journalists being unreachable for a time.

The statement also addressed what police called “erroneous” reports that RCMP jammed communications in the area, and that the military was present during the police enforcement operation.

“We would like to clarify that both of these allegations are incorrect,” the statement says. “The area is extremely remote and even police had limited access to communication.”

Mounties said earlier Monday they would enforce the interim injunction issued by the B.C. Supreme Court in mid-December. The court ordered the removal of any obstructions interfering with the Coastal GasLink project.

The injunction gave protesters 72 hours to remove obstructions and the police say that had not happened, preventing Coastal GasLink from being able to do any work in the area.

The organizer behind the Whitehorse demonstration, Charles Laanstra, who said he visited the Gidimt’en checkpoint recently, said the RCMP did a “really narrow reading of Indigenous title in this case.”

“They’ve used this to basically run roughshod over Indigenous title to that territory. I absolutely feel it’s excessive,” he said.

The Wet’suwet’en are “looking out for all of us by defending their land and their water.”

The pipeline company says it has signed agreements with all First Nations along the route for LNG Canada’s $40-billion liquefied natural gas project in Kitimat, but demonstrators argue Wet’suwet’en house chiefs have not given consent.

A news release issued Sunday on behalf of Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says all five Wet’suwet’en clans, including the Gidimt’en, oppose the construction of oil and gas pipelines in their territory.

“The provincial and federal governments must revoke the permits for this project until the standards of free, prior and informed consent are met,” Phillip says in the release.

LNG Canada announced in October that it was moving ahead with its plans for the Kitimat export facility.

Construction on the $6.2-billion pipeline, which is 670 kilometres long, is scheduled to begin this month.

With files from the Canadian Press

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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