Canada: Colonial court convicts Indigenous land defenders

January 15, 2024
Three faces against a background image of a sniper
Indigenous land defenders Shaylynn Sampson (top), Corey Jocko (middle) and 'Slaydo' Molly Wickham (bottom). Photos: Background image: C-IRG officer points a weapon at land defenders and journalists. Photo: The Narwhal

Three Indigenous land defenders — Sleydo’ Molly Wickham (Wet’suwet’en), Shaylynn Sampson (Gitxsan) and Corey Jocko (Haudenosaunee) — were found guilty of criminal contempt in a British Columbia court on January 12 for their opposition to the construction of the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.

This is a further act of colonial violence and land defenders deny the legitimacy of colonial police and courts operating on unceded Indigenous territories — lands for which there is no treaty. They also assert that the pipeline is being built without proper consent, in violation the Canadian state’s own laws.

BC Supreme Court Justice Michael Tammen found the three guilty of one charge each of criminal contempt of court for blocking access to the Coastal GasLink pipeline construction in defiance of a court order. The BC Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction in December 2019 barring protesters from impeding the pipeline’s construction.

The land defenders counter that they are not “protesters”. Properly speaking they are Indigenous people, members of sovereign nations, protecting their own territory, their cultures and lives.

Penalties for criminal contempt can range from fines to imprisonment.

Sentencing will happen after the court reviews filings on Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms violations related to police violence.

‘Lethal overwatch’ and the discredited C-IRG

Raising additional concerns is the fact that the arrests were carried out under the British Columbia Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP’s) Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a dubious and shadowy unit within the colonial RCMP that is dedicated to defense of extractive capital and specific companies and their projects.

As I have reported previously, the C-IRG literally acts as a state protection force for private capital. The BC RCMP website describes C-IRG as “created in 2017 to provide strategic oversight addressing energy industry incidents and related public order, national security and crime issues”. A highly secretive unit, C-IRG has inflicted violence on land defenders in several land defense struggles in different parts of BC.

C-IRG officers have been accused of unlawful behaviour and actions that violate RCMP’s own policies. These accusations come from activists as well as former officers who have spoken out against C-IRG brutality.

The unit’s activities have been so egregious that the RCMP’s Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) is currently investigating C-IRG, for violation of law and policies. More extensively they will be examining whether C-IRG operations violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and findings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Attention and outrage became centered on the C-IRG when it was revealed in 2019 that the force operated with “lethal overwatch” against Indigenous land defenders. Lethal overwatch is a police term for deploying officers who train weapons on people and are prepared to use lethal force on them. It is a policing weasel word for snipers. Media reports at the time of the January 2019 raid on the protest camp noted that “police were prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia”.

This deployment was made despite an RCMP planning document confirming that “police intelligence indicated that there was ‘no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms’”. An infamous photo circulated at the time showing a C-IRG officer pointing an automatic rifle at close range directly at Sleydo’, Sampson and other land defenders and journalists who were huddled inside a tin cabin.

In addition to the CRCC review, the three convicted land defenders are also taking legal action against C-IRG in relation to their own arrests and charging.

Violence, human rights violations

Sleydo’, Sampson and Jocko filed abuse of process applications with the court related to their arrests and resultant charges, arguing that the RCMP used excessive force when they were arrested. Their applications also claim that they were treated unfairly while in custody.

A statement from Gidimt’en Checkpoint (a key action site blocking the pipeline) in February last year argued: “The RCMP/CIRG’s enforcement tactics impaired the Applicant’s individual Charter rights, but the police misconduct also displays a systemic disregard for Indigenous rights and sovereignty and the Charter more generally.”

Sleydo’ further asserted that: “Society is rightly concerned with how a special unit of RCMP (C-IRG) acts with impunity, using racist language and violence against unarmed indigenous women. Now it’s in the courts hands to decide if this is acceptable.”

In an interview Sleydo’ told of police forcibly cutting a cedar bracelet and medicine bag from her at an RCMP detachment after she had been arrested. She charges that up to five RCMP officers physically restrained her and cut the medicine bag from her body while up to ten officers watched.

The colonial nature of the Canadian state is fully on display here and there is no justice to be found in colonial courts. The arrogance of the colonial court in enforcing an injunction on behalf of a multinational company to carry out a project for global investors and profit should not be lost in the particularities of legal procedures.

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