RCMP admits it’s monitoring Wet’suwet’en camps by air now

BY SARAH BERMAN | VICE.COM

Less than a week after the RCMP flatly denied spying on Wet’suwet’en First Nation sites with drones and flyovers, the police force now admits it’s deploying “air assets” to monitor Indigenous land defenders who are blocking a pipeline near Smithers, B.C.

“What I can confirm is that air assets are among the resources available to our frontline officers,” RCMP Corporal Madonna Saunderson told VICE by email Tuesday. “Those air assets can and will be deployed as necessary.”

The RCMP has been making its presence known outside Wet’suwet’en camps that evicted natural gas pipeline workers earlier this month. The cops set up a roadblock on the camps’ only access road on January 13, which has become the latest focal point of a standoff involving industry, government, RCMP, and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who say they never ceded land rights to Canada. While the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled the area should be cleared to make way for pipeline construction, the hereditary leaders say their own system of governance and laws should take precedence on their territory.

Saunderson confirmed that an RCMP aircraft “did conduct patrol over the area” on January 20, “as part of our commitment to monitor the situation.” The admission came one day after a photo of what appeared to be an RCMP plane above a Wet’suwet’en camp made the rounds on social media.

RCMP gave quite a different response when asked about similar aircraft sightings on January 15.

“We are not using drones or doing flyovers,” RCMP Sergeant Janelle Shoihet told VICE last week. “I am sure you can appreciate there is a great deal of misinformation and claims being made around our efforts, which are completely false.”

The RCMP has since attempted to clarify that position. Shoihet responded that “things are changing by the moment up here,” while Saunderson reiterated that any drone sightings in the area “were not RCMP-owned devices.”

RCMP did not confirm whether a plane seen circling a Wet’suwet’en camp four times on January 15 was operated by police. And it’s still unclear who operated several helicopters seen in a dozen other photos and video clips reviewed by VICE. A Smithers airport representative declined to release recent takeoff or landing information, citing privacy concerns.

Expensive air surveillance, whoever is paying for it, has fuelled speculation that the RCMP might be preparing for an armed raid like the one that forcibly removed 14 land defenders from a Wet’suwet’en checkpoint in January 2019. Those fears led Wet’suwet’en supporters to call out for legal observers to visit a new camp outside the police roadblock this weekend. Police are still allowing Wet’suwet’en members and media to access beyond the roadblock if they provide identification and information about their plans and length of stay.

So far the RCMP has said it does not intend to enforce an evacuation and is only maintaining the roadblock to encourage safety during negotiations between hereditary chiefs, elected Wet’suwet’en council members who support the pipeline, various other politicians, and the company Coastal GasLink. The hereditary chiefs have repeatedly called on B.C. Premier John Horgan to join the talks, which Horgan has so far declined.

Horgan sent a letter to Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Nam’oks on Monday, saying he would like to send the province’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation in his place. “I remain committed to dialogue to achieve a peaceful and safe resolution of this issue,” Horgan wrote, according to CBC. “Minister [Scott] Fraser will be focused on working with you to find a path forward.”

The premier’s letter marked a significant change in tone one week after he told reporters the project should proceed and the rule of law should prevail. Since then Wet’suwet’en supporters across Canada have forced disruptions at ferry terminals, on major highways, and in federal ministers’ offices, demanding deeper consultation and a scaled-back police presence.

“We will do whatever it takes to defend our lands and rights,” Indigenous activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney tweeted from a blockade inside the B.C. government’s energy and mines ministry Tuesday evening. “CGL and RCMP withdraw from Wet’suwet’en lands.”