Unist’ot’en camp facing imminent RCMP raid – what is Stephen Harper thinking?

On Friday morning, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs received word that the RCMP had booked up hotel rooms in Smithers and Burns Lake, two communities in close proximity to the Unist’ot’en Camp.

The Unist’ot’en Camp, as you’ll recall, sent out an appeal late last month for assistance and support in the face of what they said was a looming raid by the Mounties on their territory. Now, it appears that that raid is imminent:

“It’s definitely going to come down,” Phillip told Vancouver Observer. “We don’t have precise numbers, but it very well could be more than 200 (officers), because this story is totally rippling across the country.” […]

“I don’t want to disclose names, but there have been top political leaders who have contacted senior levels of the RCMP again, attempting to persuade them to stand down,” said Phillip, who will be heading to the Unist’ot’en Camp on Sunday to support its residents and bear witness to any police action that may take place. 

To mount an operation of this size and begin to execute this plan, (RCMP) would have had to have approval at the highest levels, at that takes considerable time, and I suspect those decisions were made weeks ago.” [my bold]

Phillip has been drawing attention to the impending confrontation between the RCMP and Indigenous land defenders and pipeline resisters for months now. In February, he said that there was the potential for another crisis on the scale of Oka surrounding Northern Gateway and other controversial pipeline projects.

For their part, members of the Unist’ot’en Camp have made it clear that they intend to hold firm and not be moved by police intimidation. Just days ago, they issued a declaration signed by all five Unist’ot’en chiefs, enacted specifically “in response to increasing encroachment onto Unist’ot’en territory by the Crown and associated industry and RCMP”, reasserting their “unbroken, unextinguished and unceded right to govern and occupy these lands”.

As rumours swirl that the RCMP intends to charge the land defenders under the hyper-controversial anti-terrorist law Bill C-51, it’s hard to imagine how the situation could become more highly charged.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association issued a letter appealing for calm, although they didn’t sound particularly optimistic:

“We understand that the RCMP may have already taken a decision, or be about to take a decision, that the RCMP will move in and remove people from the Unist’ot’en camp by force if necessary,” the BCCLA letter reads. “If we are mistaken in this, we hope that the RCMP will clarify this with the public immediately. We are deeply concerned that such an approach would be disastrous and would not respect the constitutionally-protected Title and Rights of the Unist’ot’en, as well as their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The letter goes on to present a legal argument that outlines the Wet’suwet’en’s right to occupy the area in question.

“A move by the Crown to remove the Unist’ot’en camp would be at odds with these legal principles and with respect for their Title and Rights,” it reads. “We are extremely concerned with the suggestion that the RCMP may proceed without a court order, and without the Unist’ot’en having any opportunity to defend themselves in court.”

The BCCLA also released a letter of support for the Unist’ot’en Camp signed by several high-profile individuals and organizations, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

The Mounties fired back with a carefully-worded non-denial which convinced nobody:

The RCMP responded to a request for comment regarding the BCCLA’s letter with a statement that alludes to ongoing interactions between members of the extractive industry and Unist’ot’en camp residents.

“We are aware of the letters and understand that there has been some discussions on social media that don’t accurately reflect the RCMP’s action or the situation.,” reads an email supplied by RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Janelle Shoihet. “To date there has been no police action. It is our understanding that discussions between industry and the Wet’suwet’en are still possible.”

The RCMP’s claim that there has been no police action contradicts Wet’suwet’en people’s reports of recent increased police activity in the area around the Unist’ot’en camp.

Of course, the Mounties have a pretty big credibility gap in this area. They’ve been accused of acting as company stooges for Chevron and Enbridge, and documents released last year through Access to Information requests show that the RCMP, along with CSIS, has long been illegally surveilling opponents of various pipelines at the behest of the supposedly neutral National Energy Board, which has final approval authority over the hotly contested mega-projects.

This past Monday, I explored the tangled and highly partisan relationship that’s developed between the RCMP and the Conservative Party of Canada over the past nine years of Stephen Harper’s rule – a theme that Michael Harris at iPolitics expanded on later in the week.

The Mounties in the past have shown that they’re not above helping the CPC win close elections.

And if Harper thought a high-profile confrontation with Indigenous land defenders would help his party’s falling poll numbers recover, or even just serve as a distraction from the Duffy trial catastrophe, he certainly wouldn’t be above provoking such a conflict for political reasons.

I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a possibility:

“Why is the Senior Command of the RCMP so hell bent on deliberately provoking a conflict between themselves and the Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia?” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs asked. “Are they taking these instructions from Premier Christy Clark or Prime Minister Harper?”

This is a major development in a long-simmering conflict. The timing of the escalation is baffling, to say the least. Such a show of force would no doubt rile up the hyper-racist element of the Conservative Party base, but it could backfire on the Prime Minister spectacularly. The projects that the Unist’ot’en camp is blocking are extremely unpopular in B.C., and as the persistent protester-led focus on pipelines throughout this campaign attests, this is an extremely divisive issue. It speaks to the desperation Harper is feeling that he would even consider such a high-risk move.

As for the folks on the ground, their dedication to their cause and their land is admirable, and their bravery in the face of police intimidation is inspiring. If you’re interested in supporting the Unist’ot’en camp, you can find more information here. Solidarity with the Unist’ot’en!

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