A week before several RCMP vehicles policing the Coastal GasLink project were destroyed by arson, the Wet’suwet’en group opposed to the pipeline called on activists and anarchists to help stop its construction.
“Evidence clearly demonstrates that whoever did this, did this with the sole intent of damaging the police vehicles,” said RCMP North Division Chief Supt. Warren Brown, calling the act “arson.”
Nine vehicles, including four police vehicles and an ambulance, were destroyed in the early hours of Oct. 26. All the vehicles were parked in a hotel lot in Smithers at the time of the attack.
“A police vehicle was burnt right to its shell. So even the type of vehicle is unrecognizable,” Brown said.
The RCMP vehicles were all with the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), in town to police the nearby pipeline construction.
If the RCMP vehicles were targeted because of their connection to the CGL project, it would be the second major violent attack related to pipeline construction activities that resulted in significant destruction of property. A February attack on the CGL drill site south of Houston, B.C. caused an estimated $8 million in damages.
In Smithers, between the ambulance, police vehicles and all the equipment and gear inside, Brown estimated the costs of the arson could potentially reach as high as $1 million. No one was physically injured in the fires.
No individual, or group, has claimed responsibility for either last week’s arson or the February drill site attack, and no arrests have been made.
Calling all anarchists
A week before the RCMP vehicles were torched, a spokesperson for the Wet’suwet’en group opposing construction of the CGL pipeline issued a public call out to anarchists and others.
“We are calling on you, our allies, other indigenous nations, labor unions, anarchist groups, environmentalists, students, climate activists; the threat to our survival and our freedom is our collective responsibility. Enough is enough. It’s time to plan, prepare and protect what is left,” said Molly Wickham, spokesperson for Gidimt’en Checkpoint, the protest camp located near the pipeline construction site in Wet’suwet’en territory.
Northern Beat reached out to Wickham via Gidimt’en Checkpoint asking for her perspective on the RCMP vehicle arsons, her “call out” to anarchists, and why their protest may be attracting supporters using violence to damage pipeline-related property. “Do you condemn violence to serve your cause and do you specifically condemn the arson of RCMP vehicles?” our email asked. Neither Wickham nor Gidimt’en Checkpoint responded by press time.
Appearing on an Oct. 19 group Zoom call, Wickham (also known as ‘Sleydo’) put out a call for action because she said the Wet’suwet’en protesters had “exhausted” all legal remedies to stop the CGL pipeline construction and needed help.
CGL is constructing a 670-kilometre pipeline that will deliver natural gas from Dawson Creek, B.C. to the liquified natural gas facility in Kitimat, B.C. The company is now micro-tunneling under the Morice River, located within the Wet’suwet’en territory, in preparation for laying pipe in the ground 11 metres beneath the waterway.
All 20 elected First Nations councils (including the Wet’suwet’en) along the pipeline route support the project. Several Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders oppose the pipeline’s construction and claim they represent the community-held asserted, undefined rights and title on a portion of the land the pipeline crosses – a claim that has been challenged by other Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders.
That doesn’t happen around here
Whether the arson attacks are related to the pipeline protests or not, the extremeness of the act has rocked the 5,000-plus community of Smithers.
“It’s the type of thing you see on the news for other cities, not our little town,” said Smithers mayor Gladys Atrill, who called the incident “traumatic” and “very damaging” for the people who were at the fire location.
“Aside from the monetary damage to the property, just to know that that happened takes its toll on people,” she said.
For now, the damage is done. Despite a lot of speculation swirling around, Atrill cautioned people to be patient and wait for the police to investigate.
Meanwhile, residents need to be vigilant and pay attention in case something else happens, she said.
Chief Supt. Brown won’t say much about what the RCMP know beyond an initial finding of arson. Police are canvassing nearby businesses for video footage and have asked the public to share any information they may have about the crimes.
“From an investigator’s perspective, what would a motive be for those who would do this? Why would they do this?” asked Brown. “Do we have an anarchist? Do we have somebody with mental health issues? The vehicles were clearly marked C-IRG [Community-Industry Response Group].”
The RCMP C-IRG members were on hand to mitigate the risks of ongoing civil disorder and violence related stemming from opposition to the project’s construction.
Over the past several years, protesters claiming control of the land have clashed with pipeline workers and police enforcing court-ordered injunctions that uphold the company’s right to proceed with construction.
On Feb. 17, axe-wielding assailants attacked the CGL Morice river drill site, disabled lighting and video surveillance, seized heavy equipment and destroyed machines, gear, vehicles and structures, causing millions in estimated damages. Pipeline workers fled the site unharmed but a police officer was injured trying to pursue one of the suspects.
In a Global News interview following the drill site attack, Wet’suwet’en hereditary leader Theresa Tait-Day (Wi’hali’yte) condemned the pipeline attack and said those involved were “a rogue group of people who want to fill their own agendas.”
Tait-Day added, “Our feeling is that these are people from out-of-province and we would like them to go home. And leave the decision-making of these projects up to the Wet-suwet’en people.”
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth called the drill site attack “egregious criminal activity.”
A police investigation is still underway.
“For individuals or groups of individuals to look at committing criminal offenses to bypass [the law] – not through negotiation, not through courts, not through other processes – when they rely on criminality, they’re breaching the very foundation to our freedom in Canada,” said Brown. “And that is the rule of law.”
Let the evidence speak
Even with all the anger, harassment, protests, vandalism and violence related to the pipeline’s construction so far, police can’t assume anything and “have to be open to all avenues of investigation,” Brown said. “It’s dangerous when we start to focus and tunnel vision an investigation on a group or people we think have committed something.”
Notably, only the vehicles involved in policing the pipeline were targeted. The general duty RCMP vehicles at the nearby detachment in Smithers were untouched.
“Is there a nexus there? Perhaps,” said Brown. “But again, we’ll have to have evidence speak to itself.”
In the group Zoom call on Oct. 19, Wickham didn’t mention the CGL drill site attack but recalled the ‘Shutdown Canada’ campaign in early 2020, which caused traffic, ship and train delays when protesters blocked roads, ports and railways in support of the Wet’suwet’en protesters.
“People rose up and took over critical infrastructure. They took over the rail lines,” said Wickham. “Shutdown Canada impacted [the CGL] pocketbook and impacted the functioning of the country of Canada.”
Now was the time to “organize ourselves and take action,” she told viewers. “So what do we do?” she asked. “Our ancestors were outlaws” for fighting unjust laws in their time.
“Our ancestors fought… knowing that they would be jailed or fined, and would become outlaws essentially, criminalized in their own territories,” Wickham said. “We are grateful to them now.”
One day, injunctions will be seen “as the racist laws that they actually are,” Wickham added.
Nov. 5 targets
Also appearing with Wickham on the Zoom call was Timothy Ellis, an organizer with Lead Now, a group that organizes social action campaigns. On the Lead Now ‘About’ page, the organization indicates a specialty in “rapid response campaigns” and among other accomplishments, takes unsubstantiated credit for “convincing BC’s Greens and NDP to work together to overthrow the Christy Clark Liberals” (which may surprise the Greens and the NDP). Ellis issued a hard pitch to Wet’suwet’en supporters to sign up for Canada-wide “kill the drill” protests which intend to target BC MLA offices and RBC bank locations across the country on Nov. 5.
The Lead Now organizer referenced “the RCMP’s targeted and racist harassment” of the Wet’suwet’en protesters and proposed the pipeline protest was a common cause for all viewers.
“The same system that uses violence to loot Indigenous land is the system that keeps you struggling to put food on the table,” Ellis said.
“You are next,” he told viewers ominously. “If tomorrow the grass on your lawn, or the chairs at your table were shown to have big dollar value they could exploit, by 6 p.m., the banks would have the RCMP at your house evicting you.”
Organizers plan to facilitate protests and sit-ins at as many RBC locations as possible across Canada. They and Gidimt’en Checkpoint also published the phone numbers of several RBC senior executives, along with a talking script, and instructed supporters to incessantly call them – “every day,” counselled Wickham – as part of a relentless, coordinated campaign to bully the bank into severing financial ties with the CGL pipeline project.
On Oct. 28, following the police vehicle arsons, Wickham re-iterated her Oct. 19 call to action on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint Facebook page: “We are making a public call to all our allies and accomplices to stand with us!” This time, she called on labour unions, anarchists, environmentalists, students, climate activists to join the Nov. 5 protests.
When asked about the call-out to anarchists, Brown said “[If] leaders in the groups are calling on anarchists to come help, I take that as a high threat. That is really unfortunate.”
“There’s really no place in our society for that type of retaliatory call,” added Brown. “That promotes violence, promotes hatred. Really, this is not a time in Canadian society or history to just start trying to get momentum behind that.”
BC Liberal MLA for Skeena, Ellis Ross, also weighed in. He said anyone calling out to anarchists was “terrifying,” especially if it’s linked to encouraging people to be modern-day outlaws.
“The word anarchy has no limits except to ignore the rule of law,” said Ross. “Laws are meant to protect all of us, regardless of our ideals or politics.”
A former chief councillor of Haisla Nation, Ross is an ardent proponent of Indigenous communities fully participating in the resource economy. But he’s seen his share of the anger and divisions that can accompany that process, having helped his own community land the largest LNG project in B.C.’s history.
As for the CGL pipeline, the way actions are ramping up, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, he said, adding, there have to be legal consequences for “an already out-of-control situation.”
“We, as a society, can’t go on accepting violent acts or even ignoring the suggestions of violence. It doesn’t matter the ethnicity or cause of violent actions,” Ross said.
“First Nations and B.C. citizens don’t want violence.”