The British Columbia Prosecution Service said 15 people are being charged with criminal contempt of court following protests last fall over a natural gas pipeline being built near Houston in northern B.C.
Those charged are alleged to have breached a B.C. Supreme Court injunction granted to the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline in 2019 that prohibited blockades or interference with the company’s construction activities, The Canadian Press reports. In a video on the Yintah Access website, the Wet’suwet’en say police have trespassed on their unceded land more than 900 times since March 2022.
The provincial prosecution service said it will take four more weeks to decide if there’s enough evidence to charge an additional 10 people, while two others who were arrested won’t be prosecuted, CP writes. Court documents say all 27 people were arrested over six days between September and November along a forest service road leading to a work site for Coastal GasLink. The 670-kilometre pipeline is expected to carry fracked natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat.
The project has sparked protests across the country in recent years by those in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who say it violates their traditional laws. The elected council of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and others nearby have agreed to the project, but their jurisdiction does not extend to the lands affected by the pipeline.
In a statement read in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, the prosecution service said it worked closely with RCMP to obtain investigative materials and considered correspondence from both a lawyer for some of the defendants and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
The review concerning the 10 defendants whose fate has yet to be determined will focus on their knowledge of the terms of the injunction, it said.
There wasn’t enough evidence to show the two people who won’t be prosecuted were aware of the terms of the injunction, it said, even if their conduct had potential to infringe upon it.
“Because of the way matters arose, police did not have a copy of the injunction at the time of the arrests and were only able to paraphrase it orally after the protesters had been arrested,” the prosecution service said in the court documents.
The guidelines the Crown uses to determine charges in cases of civil disobedience say it’s not always in the public interest to pursue criminal contempt charges, CP writes. Factors favouring prosecution may include, but aren’t limited to, violent conflict resulting in physical harm, serious property damage, an assault on an officer, or less serious but persistent offences that significantly obstruct public access.
The Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused defied or disobeyed a court order in a public way.
Ahead of the court hearing, the Yintah Access website published a template letter to B.C. Attorney General David Eby pressing him not to proceed with criminal charges.
“I urge you to not intervene as it would further criminalize the land defenders currently facing charges as Coastal GasLink is requesting,” the letter stated [pdf]. “The Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have stated their position and are defending their territory and sacred headwaters Wedzin Kwa as they have done since time immemorial. We as guests on unceded land need to respect the decisions of the Hereditary Chiefs and enact reconciliation instead of disrespecting and criminalizing them further for practicing their culture and laws.”
The Gidimt’en checkpoint, a logging road camp that’s led by members of one of five clans within the broader Wet’suwet’en Nation, has been reporting an escalation of harassment and intimidation on the territory. The Narwhal has a long and compellingly-illustrated exposé on that treatment.
The camp issued a call to supporters last week saying it needs help to prevent Coastal GasLink from drilling under the Wedzin Kwa river, also known as the Morice River, which it says violates Wet’suwet’en rights and title, CP says.
Coastal GasLink said in a statement it has dealt with numerous violations of B.C. Supreme Court injunctions since 2018. It said the injunctions are meant to allow safe access and construction of the project.
CGL, a subsidiary of Calgary-based pipeliner TC Energy, is fully authorized and permitted by the federal and provincial governments, with local Indigenous support, and the company agrees with the charges.
The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on June 1, 2022.