VANCOUVER — A civilian police watchdog has released a letter that was described Thursday as "explosive" by a supporter of hereditary chiefs opposed to a pipeline in northern British Columbia because it criticizes the RCMP for using buffer or exclusion zones.
Michelaine Lahaie, chairperson of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, declined to launch a public interest investigation into the RCMP's conduct on Wet'suwet'en traditional territory earlier this month in B.C. because she said the same broad issues were raised and previously investigated in New Brunswick.
The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs filed their complaint with the commissioner alleging the Mounties unlawfully restricted access to a remote logging road in northern B.C. before they enforced an injunction this month on behalf of Coastal GasLink.
In her letter, Lahaie said the commission submitted 37 findings and 12 recommendations after investigating the RCMP's response to Indigenous-led protests against shale gas exploration in Kent County, N.B. That report was delivered to the RCMP in March 2019 but the commission has not received a response, she said.
"It is in light of this previous report that, after careful consideration, I have decided not to initiate a public interest investigation into the matters you raise in your correspondence at this time," she says in the letter.
"This is not because I do not consider these issues to be of significant importance," she wrote, adding that she believes opening a fresh investigation would delay a resolution of the issues raised.
Forty people were arrested near Rexton, N.B., after the RCMP enforced an injunction on Oct. 17, 2013, to prevent people from blocking a compound where SWN Resources was storing exploration equipment.
Police said they seized guns and improvised explosive devices when they enforced the injunction to end the blockade of the compound. Six police vehicles were burned and police responded with pepper spray and fired beanbag-type bullets to defuse the situation.
Lahaie says the commission's unpublished investigation into that incident found that the RCMP generally had reasonable grounds to make the arrests and the force used was necessary and proportional. In policing protests, RCMP members demonstrated they understood the "measured approach" and did not demonstrate bias in general or engage in differential treatment of Indigenous protesters during the arrests, she says.
But the RCMP over-reached when it came to stop checks and searches near Rexton, she says.
Officers had "no legal authority" to require that passengers produce identification at stop checks and the information police collected from those who passed through was concerning, she says.
"The random stops were found to be inconsistent with the charter rights of the vehicle occupants," Lahaie says.
Routine searches of vehicles and individuals entering a protest campsite in New Brunswick were also found unauthorized by law, she said.
When it comes to exclusion or "buffer" zones, interfering with individual liberty to circulate and peacefully protest would only be justified in specific, limited cases, Lahaie says. The power to create buffer zones, she says, "is not a general power and instead must be temporally, geographically, and logistically responsive to the circumstances."
The RCMP could not immediately be reached for comment.
At a news conference in Vancouver, Wet'suweten members and supporters criticized the police.
"The report that has been completed is absolutely explosive," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
The association shared statements Thursday on behalf of eight Wet'suwet'en members and supporters who say they were turned away from the area when they tried to deliver supplies, give legal support or visit pipeline opponents at a camp along the road.
Delee Alexis Nikal, one of the Wet'suwet'en complainants, said she was turned away while trying to deliver emergency supplies like hand and foot warmers when temperatures dipped below -35C.
"I was denied access and the police officer who I dealt with couldn't really give me a good reason as to why," she said.
Nikal said she couldn't understand why such a heavy police presence was necessary to enforce an injunction when there don't seem to be as many resources concentrated on solving cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the community. She named six friends and family members she has lost since she was 11.
"We've had a pretty long history of poor treatment by the RCMP so that adds to the nervousness and the fear for a lot of people," she said.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia's Indian Residential School and Dialogue Centre, said the fact that the RCMP has not responded to Lahaie almost a year after receiving the report on New Brunswick raises questions about the civilian oversight body's power to compel the RCMP to act.
The people who filed the complaint in 2013 have yet to see the report and she said a seven-year delay in justice is unacceptable.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Turpel-Lafond said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Michelaine Lahaie's last name.