Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation are suing the RCMP and Coastal GasLink for alleged harassment they claim to have suffered at the hands of police and private security overstepping the boundaries of an injunction guaranteeing the construction of a controversial pipeline.
In a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court Wednesday, two elders and one of the leaders of the protests against Coastal GasLink say they’ve been subject to a “relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation” on unceded territory adjacent to a forest road leading to the pipeline worksite.
Janet Williams, Lawrence Bazil and Molly Wickham — known as Sleydo’ — claim the courts gave Coastal GasLink an injunction protecting access through the road, but that order doesn’t allow police to stop Wet’suwet’en people from “using, occupying and residing on their land.”
“There’s quite a stark contrast from enforcing an injunction and being on the territory for a specific legal reason and engaging in the kinds of behaviour that they have 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last over three months now,” Wickham told the CBC.
“We’re seeking damages from all of these companies for the duress and the psychological harm and the infringement of our right to be on our territory and engage in cultural practices.”
‘It does not impede traffic’
The 32-page notice of civil claim centres on two locations along the remote Morice Forest Service Road — Lamprey Village and the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
The road leads to the site where Coastal GasLink is building a 670-kilometre-long natural gas pipeline spanning from near Dawson Creek in the east to Kitimat in the west.
The company has signed benefit agreements with 20 band councils along the project’s route. But Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership says band councils do not have authority over land beyond reserve boundaries.
The company obtained injunctions in 2018 and 2019 preventing supporters of the hereditary chiefs from blocking road access to the site.
According to the notice of claim, the Gidimt’en checkpoint was created in December 2018 in a pullout 10 metres to the south of the Morice Forest Service Road as an “important symbol of the Wet’suwet’en resistance to the pipeline project.”
The claim says the checkpoint is comprised of at least a dozen buildings including cabins, canvas tents and cooking facilities.
Lamprey Village sits about 500 metres to the east, and is being “occupied by members of the Gidimt’en clan in an effort to re-establish a presence on their traditional territory.”
The lawsuit says the checkpoint is home to Williams and Bazil and “a place of regular cultural practice” for Wickham.
“The Gidimt’en checkpoint in no way impedes travel along the [road],” the claim says.
“Lamprey Village is barely visible from the [road]. It does not impede traffic along the [road] at all.”
‘An effort to suppress lawful activity’
The lawsuit claims that police, Coastal GasLink, a security company and a subcontractor have conspired by routinely sharing information, video footage and photographs as part of a “joint effort” to force the protestors away.
The court document cites incidents beginning last February that include entering the disputed areas several times a day, demanding photo identification, “shining high beams and spotlights into residential buildings at all hours of the night,” seizing equipment and property and conducting unlawful arrests and detentions.
“They have been unreasonable and excessive, discriminatory on the basis of race, malicious and an abuse of police powers,” the lawsuit says.
“They represent an effort to suppress lawful activity and the assertion of Indigenous rights and title.”
Wickham is one of 10 protesters currently waiting to find out if the B.C. Prosecution Service plans to move ahead with contempt charges stemming from alleged breaches of the service road injunction last fall.
Earlier this month, the Crown decided it would charge 15 other protesters with contempt, but requested until July 7 to decide if Wickham and nine others will also face trial.
In an interview with the CBC, Wickham said the lawsuit filed this week presents a different — but related — issue to the injunction battle.
“There they could claim that they had the legal authority to come in and make arrests based on the enforcement of the injunction,” she said.
“When they’ve been coming into the village sites, they have no legal authority to be doing that. They don’t have any jurisdiction to be coming into our private residences, our private home sites. And so that’s been something we’ve been asking them the whole time is — ‘What is your authority to be here?'”
The notice of civil claim says officers have asserted their right to be on “Crown land” or “checking to ensure nobody was breaching conditions.”
In a statement, a police spokesperson said RCMP have not been served with the claim yet, but would provide “an official response through the civil court process” when they receive a copy.
Coastal GasLink has yet to respond to the lawsuit.
None of the claims have been proven in court.