The Unist’ot’en Camp is a protest site in northern BC that claims to be at the junction of several proposed oil and natural gas pipelines. The camp is officially part of the Unist’ot’en, a clan belonging to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The is represented by two indigenous spokespeople and claims to have the support of 5 hereditary chiefs, outside a handful of local aboriginals, the vast majority of participants are political activists from outside of the community
While many who attend are peaceful, the camp’s list of guests and endorsers is a who’s who of militant extremism- several who’ve openly endorsed violence. This is reflected in their tactic of chasing down pipeline workers and threatening to forcibly “confiscate” their equipment if they dare return. Despite what many perceive as violent tactics, they’ve been allowed to continue this behavior for several years.
The RCMP have been tracking the camp since at least 2010. One of their more recent visits was filmed by Unist’ot’en on July 15th. The video shows a cop quietly listening while a blond-haired white hippie kid wags his finger yelling “do you know this is unceded territory!”. On August 27 a pipeline crew threatened to call the police after being obstructed. Unist’ot’en supporters made a surprising announcement the next day which – if true – would have indicated a historical shift in RCMP policy.
The protester’s statement alleged that the camp was on high alert over concerns of a “large scale RCMP mass arrest operation”. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) claimed that “police officers have booked up hotel rooms in Smithers and Burns Lake in preparation for an invasion”. He sounded very confident of a raid telling the Vancouver Observer “it’s definitely going to come down,” estimating there could be more than 200 officers ready to pounce.
Russ Diabo of Defenders of the Land, a labour-affiliated activist shock jock who accuses the government of operating a “First Nations termination plan,” took the story one step further. “RCMP descending on Unistoten camp right now,” he declared “So far Unistoten is getting RCMP to stand back, no arrests”.
On August 30th the Green Party of Canada issued a press release claiming they joined with UBCIC and over 100 signatories- “expressing support for the Unist’ot’en community’s right to defend their lands from oil and gas development”. Elizabeth May denounced “any attempt by the RCMP to conduct mass arrests” saying it would be “reckless and irresponsible” for them to “provoke a conflict”.
North Island-Powell River Green Party candidate Brenda Sayers implied the government was engaging in dirty tricks asking, “Why would the RCMP choose now to contemplate mass arrests? Is it related to the election?”. Burnaby Green candidate Lynne Quarmby commented saying “The people of the Unist’ot’en Camp are peaceful. Police escalation is inappropriate and dangerous”.
The BC Civil Liberties Association’s letter to the RCMP was marginally more responsible, acknowledging on the first page that the allegations might not be true. They also warned it would be “disastrous” if the RCMP executed the alleged plan, and expressed concern about “the suggestion that the RCMP may proceed without a court order”.
Debunking The Myth
The RCMP are regularly criticized for their softly, softly approach at blockades and occupations. Their officers explain that it’s only their job to “keep the peace” and it’s not their place “to take sides”. It’s been their practice for some time that they won’t take action to evict occupations without a court injunction. The process can be time-consuming and expensive- projects can be shut down for days, weeks, or months.
The rumor that the RCMP was suddenly throwing long-established best practices to the wind, “mass arresting” a handful of protesters, should have set off air raid sirens for seasoned activists. Anyone who’s opened a journalism textbook should have realized it would be irresponsible to fan the flames by spreading misinformation at a police raid reported as dangerous and volatile.
Betsy Trumpener at CBC News wrote that her news agency “has learned of a larger RCMP presence in Smithers, Burns Lake and Houston, the towns closest to the protest camp.” Yesterday NDP MP Nathan Cullen stated he’d investigated this allegation claiming it was inaccurate and based on “anecdotal evidence”. “It would be hard to hide 150 officers,” he quipped.
The RCMP outright denied plans to raid and conduct mass arrests. Their first statement to the Vancouver Observer explained “We understand that there has [sic] been some discussions on social media that don’t accurately reflect the RCMP’s action or the situation”. Following up after complaints of ambiguity, the Mounties clarified their position saying they have “no intention of taking down the camp”.
Besides RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, Elizabeth May is one of the most likely Canadians to have realized this was a hoax. As a lifelong activist it’s unfathomable she was unable to see through the mist. As a lawyer and MP, May’s willingness to help propagate such an unlikely rumor against the RCMP is deeply troubling. May has a history of this behavior, once even suggesting that RCMP officers “planted” guns and improvised explosives at the Elsipogtog fracking protests in New Brunswick.
Green Candidate Lynne Quarmby’s statement that the protesters (who run around harassing pipeline workers and threatening to steal their equipment) are peaceful demonstrates she’s not fit for office. The message plays well with some of her constituents and jives with May’s claim that window smashing isn’t violent– but directly conflicts the values of most Canadians.
So, What’s Really Happening?
Last week wasn’t the first time Unist’ot’en supporters were caught crying wolf. In April 2014, spokespeople Frieda Huson and Warner Naziel held a press conference where they claimed to be privy to “leaked information” that the provincial government was planning to file an injunction. They claimed the injunction would be filed “any day now,” sixteen months later there’s still no sign of one.
Last week’s anti-RCMP feeding frenzy smells a lot like a political stunt. Stewart Phillip’s press release showed the controversy was at least used for political purposes:
“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? Are they taking these instructions from Premier Christy Clark or Prime Minister Harper?”
But regardless of the intentions of the activists and politicians who propagated this hoax, one thing has become crystal clear. It will be a lot harder to trust their claims the next time they make accusations the RCMP. While this knowledge is good for the RCMP, it might be tragic for Canadians- the next time could be real and important, but they’ll face an uphill battle to get people to believe them.
I like Elizabeth May; she’s warm, congenial, a good speaker, and represents the beautiful community where I grew up. Out of all the Canadian politicians I’ve met in-person she’s the person I’d be most likely invite to a dinner party in my home. That said, after studying her and fellow Green candidate’s behavior during this incident, it scares the bejesus out of me to imagine them in Parliament.