It is officially called the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a tactical arm of the British Columbia (BC) Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Indigenous land defenders call them “Indian fighters” and “oil and gas mercenaries”.
It is a secretive industry defence unit of the RCMP, and little is known about its formation, operational details or makeup. What is known and well-documented are its numerous violent deployments against Indigenous land and water protectors, environmentalists and allies — a clear expression of the state’s role in violently defending capital.
Soon, however, some light might be shed on C-IRG’s inner structures, command, operations and formal connections with industrial capital. Following a growing number of complaints from Indigenous people and environmental activists, who have long reported a variety of abuses at the hands of C-IRG officers, the RCMP oversight body announced on March 9 that it will launch an investigation into the unit.
What is C-IRG?
The RCMP website is notably quiet about C-IRG, describing it as established in 2017 to “provide strategic oversight addressing energy industry incidents and related public order, national security and crime issues”.
The RCMP claims that C-IRG’s mandate “is to ensure a consistent, standardized and impartially administered police response across the province”, using “a measured approach in facilitating the peaceful resolution of public disorder issues” and “proactively engage all stakeholders through open communication and meaningful dialogue”. C-IRG’s activities show these statements to be disingenuous, given the unit’s often-outrageous activities on the ground.
C-IRG operates directly and openly in the service of extractive industries in British Columbia, including oil and gas, logging and fish farming operations. Its officers have been most notoriously deployed to dismantle blockades at sites of extractive capital. These operations have included the use of helicopters, police dogs and drones.
Attention has also been given to the mercenary appearance of the unit. They carry out their operations with masks hiding their faces and identification tags torn off or covered. C-IRG officers have also been recorded wearing “thin blue line" patches associated with fascist and white supremacist groups.
An investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network uncovered a range of disturbing allegations against C-IRG, including torture, brutality, intimidation, harassment, racism, theft and destruction of property, arbitrary detention and deceit. Their investigations also found evidence of widespread spying, collusion with private security firms and collaboration with industry lawyers. The unit also engaged in wilful violations of its own RCMP policy.
Frontline activists, using documents that Wet’suwet’en land defenders received through a freedom of information request, have estimated that more than CA$18 million in public money was spent between 2018‒21 solely in enforcement of Coastal GasLink’s injunction against land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory.
Another media source reported that the RCMP spent $3.75 million over the course of five months in 2021 on enforcing a court injunction against old-growth-logging protesters at Fairy Creek on southern Vancouver Island. Of that, $2.45 million (65%) went to officer costs.
Recent court documents show that more than 1000 people were arrested during the injunction enforcement at Fairy Creek. Nearly 425 have been prosecuted, primarily on criminal contempt charges.
Michelaine Lahaie, chairperson of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) of the RCMP, announced on March 8 that the oversight body would launch a systemic investigation of C-IRG.
The investigation will look into claims of pre-emptive arrests without due process, assaults and forceful detentions. Alleged police transgressions include subjecting protesters to arbitrary searches, “herding” people into exclusion zones, blocking access to forest service roads, preventing medical treatment and using pepper spray indiscriminately on bystanders.
It is also claimed that members of the media have been denied their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
According to the CRCC, the investigation “will also include a comprehensive file review to assess whether or to what extent the activities and operations of the (unit) are carried out in accordance with legal standards, policy requirements, and leading practices”.
It will look at whether C-IRG’s policies, procedures and training are consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It will also seek to determine if C-IRG deployment and operations meet the federal and BC government’s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Claims by Wet’suwet’en land defenders
The decision to investigate comes only days after a dozen Wet’suwet’en land defenders and supporters applied to the BC Supreme Court to have criminal contempt charges against them stayed, due to what they call widespread Charter violations and police misconduct.
They allege an “abuse of process” in court applications, outlining a “disproportionate and excessive use of force” against peaceful land defenders during a series of militarised police raids by the RCMP in November 2021.
The claim details violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, arguing that arrestees were denied their right to security of person, subjected to unreasonable search and seizure, arbitrarily detained and imprisoned and denied reasonable bail without just cause.
The application is grounded in Indigenous sovereignty and rights and states: “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,” according to the court filings.
The application points out that each arrest took place on the unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and that defendants acted under the lawful authority of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to protect unceded Wet’suwet’en lands and waters.
According to the claim: “The Wet’suwet’en have asserted a right to live on and protect their territories for thousands of years, primarily through the feast hall governance system carried out communally by its clans and house groups. The impacts of the manner of enforcement are not limited to the individuals arrested, but extend to the efforts at reconciliation between the Wet’suwet’en and the federal and provincial governments.”
In 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding confirmed the governments of Canada and British Columbia recognise the Wet’suwet’en hereditary system as “a legitimate government with title” to 22,000 square kilometres of unceded land. This has not stopped the RCMP from undertaking what Indigenous land defenders call a violent invasion of Wet’suwet’en traditional territories.
Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and one of the twelve defendants pursuing the stay of criminal contempt charges, said: “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 still acceptable in 2023.”
A C-IRG officer recently came forward to blow the whistle on RCMP enforcement tactics at Fairy Creek over the summer of 2021. The officer resigned from the task force over what they called “unjustifiable” police actions during a violent crackdown on activists. These actions included RCMP officers smashing windows of vehicles parked in the injunction zone, seizing and possibly discarding protesters’ personal property and improperly handling people. Officers also deployed pepper spray and used force to disperse and arrest protesters.
The whistleblower also claimed that police wore thin blue line patches, were ordered to remove their name tags and inappropriately socialised with members of forestry company Teal Cedar’s private security force and company workers.
The officer observed a box of racist thin blue line patches at Fairy Creek and said that the insignia was handed out to officers. In his words: “We were told the blue line patches piss off the hippies, so wear them.” He reported seeing one officer wearing three of them on his uniform.
Two hundred and fifty police complaints related to the Fairy Creek blockades have been filed with the CRCC. Of those, 108 meet the commission’s mandate.
We know that there is no police oversight and accountability as communities require it. Police are the state’s armed force of repression and have a monopoly on violence. Still, this case may reveal some useful insights into the workings of a central force of state-capital collaboration.