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Heavy machinery smashed beyond repair and bulldozers lying on their sides in the frozen mud. Security trucks pockmarked with holes made by axes. Remote work buildings gutted, debris spilling out onto the ground. These are the images of damage that came out of Coastal GasLink’s Northern B.C. worksite on Feb. 17.
The company says that attackers caused millions of dollars of damage and halted operations on a key worksite for the multibillion dollar natural gas pipeline project, owned by energy giant TC Energy in partnership with Canadian pension funds and some international financial institutions.
But more than a week after the dramatic events, many questions remain about how many people were involved, who they were and how they managed to foil security and law enforcement.
The project has been contentious since it was first proposed in 2012. And, after construction of the pipeline began in 2019, it became the centre of several conflicts that caused construction delays and cast a spotlight on how settler governments and industry interests can clash with Indigenous Rights.
The site where the events took place is the location the pipeline would cross under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River, a focal point for the conflict between Wet’suwet’en land defenders, RCMP and the pipeline company.
The drill site was occupied by land defenders for 59 days last fall, an attempt to prevent the company from drilling under the river, which, according to Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, is considered sacred. The occupation ended in late November after a series of armed raids by the RCMP — more than 30 people were violently arrested.
The recent events have been described as “violent” and “terrifying” by a private security worker who was present when masked people, many clad in all-white camouflage and some carrying axes and flare guns, approached the remote site roughly 60 kilometres from the nearest town.
Here’s what we know — and what we don’t — about what happened.
According to Coastal GasLink, a security agent named Trevor said he was alone in his truck shortly after midnight at the gate to the Marten forest service road, which provides the sole access to the drill site near the river. He was updating a routine daily report when he says he heard some yelling.
“It’s very dark. We had a light tower there, so the area is lit up, but the area around it, the bush, is quite dark,” Trevor said in a blog post published by Coastal GasLink.
“I keep both windows rolled down, just a little bit, just so I can hear things … I could hear yelling all of a sudden.”
Unknown assailants approached his truck and demanded he open the gate, according to his statement. One individual then started cutting the gate open with a cordless power tool, while others started swinging axes at his vehicle, he said.
Images and videos released by the RCMP and Coastal GasLink show two assailants approach the vehicle with axes and swing them at the side of the truck. Another video shows an individual approach a truck with a strobe light and start spray painting the passenger window while another appears to fire a flare gun at the ground.
The pipeline company said there were approximately 20 people involved in the attack on Coastal GasLink, which occurred simultaneously on the drill site itself and at the gate.
After security forces fled both locations, the assailants allegedly commandeered heavy equipment and used it to damage work facilities, other machinery, generators, lights and security camera equipment, according to Coastal GasLink.
Local RCMP was called to the site shortly after midnight, when Coastal GasLink reported the events. Officers drove in on the only road access — the Morice West forest service road — to the 41 kilometre mark, where they found trees blocking the road, along with “tar covered stumps, wire, boards with spikes in them” and other obstacles, including tarps and lit fires, according to an RCMP news release.
At this point, “several people threw smoke bombs and fire lit sticks at the police, injuring one officer,” the release says. Warren Brown, chief superintendent and RCMP commander for the north, later told the CBC the officer was injured by stepping on a board with spikes on it. A spokesperson for the RCMP told The Narwhal in an email the officer “received non-life threatening injuries and is recovering.”
Two kilometres down the road, officers say they encountered an old school bus blocking access. With help from Coastal GasLink workers and machinery, RCMP cleared the obstacle and continued, according to the RCMP release.
At the drill site, which is roughly 63 kilometres on the Morice road, officers say they found only the remnants of the destructive activity and no further blockades or people.
No arrests were made at the time of the incident and no arrests have been made since.
The Narwhal requested interviews with security workers who were present during the events, but Coastal GasLink declined and instead shared the account made by Trevor on its website.
“We have already put this to Trevor, the individual who shared his story with us, and he was not comfortable and respectfully declined,” a spokesperson for TC Energy, Coastal GasLink’s parent company, told The Narwhal in an email. “As such, respecting what he and others have been through, we will not be able to accommodate a worker interview.”
An RCMP investigation has been ongoing since the events took place and officers established a checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark on the Morice road.
“This is a very troubling escalation in violent criminal activity that could have resulted in serious injury or death,” Brown said in a statement. “This was a calculated and organized violent attack that left its victims shaken and a multimillion dollar path of destruction.”
Coastal GasLink noted it is still assessing the extent of the damage and attempting to address environmental impacts.
“Coastal GasLink remains focused on environmental mitigation to address fuel leaks caused by vandalism to heavy equipment, as well as clean-up and damage assessment,” the company said on its website. “Construction is expected to resume when that work is complete, though no specific date is available at this time.”
Unlike previous actions, no one has taken responsibility for the actions but Brown told the Prince George Post that RCMP investigators are pursuing leads.
“We have no idea who the 20-plus are, but we have a good idea who one or two are,” Brown said.
Coastal GasLink noted in a statement its security workers had observed unknown people conducting surveillance or reconnaissance of the drill site for a few weeks prior to the events.
“For the past several weeks, Coastal GasLink has experienced several incidents where unknown people who have used forest trails to access this construction site disrupt activities by confronting and intimidating workers. These incidents were reported to police. It is unknown if these events are related to the Feb. 17 attack.”
The elected council of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of six elected councils on Wet’suwet’en territory, issued a statement distributed by the First Nations LNG Alliance to media outlets including CBC and the Vancouver Sun condemning the actions.
“We want everyone to know that the people of our First Nation do not support anyone who protests in this way. These protesters do not represent us, or our values and they are grossly misrepresenting our traditional laws and customs,” the statement says.
“This is not our way. We call on those who are inviting violent non-Wet’suwet’en people into our territories to withdraw the invitations. We call on their supporters wherever they are, to stop funding criminal protests and to stop trespassing on our traditional lands.”
The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs noted in a statement they did not have enough information to comment directly on the situation, but said they are concerned about everyone’s safety.
“Our Elders, Dinï ze’ and Tsakë’ze continue to state that we do not support violence, and see conflicts escalating across the yintah (territory) and throughout turtle island,” they wrote. “We have a trapping program on the yintah and members living on the yintah in this area, we continue to express our concern for their safety and wellbeing too. Dinï ze’ were on the territory in that same area just a few days ago and had not witnessed anything unusual or irregular.”
The First Nations Leadership Council noted its concerns with the reports of violence and vandalism in a statement sent to The Narwhal Feb. 24.
“Our first and foremost concern is for the safety and well-being of the Wet’suwet’en people who, like all First Nations in B.C., actively exercise their rights and traditional practices, such as trapping, year-round within their traditional territory,” the statement says.
“The Wet’suwet’en should not have to fear for their safety or well being while undertaking their traditional practices and should not have any on-going investigations negatively impact their ability to carry out their traditional practices or limit access to their territories.”
“We stand with the Wet’suwet’en people in complete opposition to any acts of violence or any acts of vandalism within their territory.”
The absence of anyone claiming responsibility for the events is a notable departure from previous actions connected to Wet’suwet’en land defenders.
In November, for example, land defenders occupying the drill site at Wedzin Kwa River — which they called Coyote Camp — enforced an eviction order first issued to Coastal GasLink by the Hereditary Chiefs in early 2020, closing the Morice River road. At the time, the land defenders, including Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, a wing chief in Cas Yikh House, Gidimt’en Clan, spoke to The Narwhal openly about the situation.
“We were sending a clear message to the province, to Canada, and they weren’t acting on it — they weren’t hearing what we were saying — so we had to get a little bit louder,” she said at the time. “They’re destroying absolutely everything that is important to us in our territory.”
Wickham was among those arrested in November and due to her status as de facto leader of the land defenders (she lives with her family on the territory and was on location for the entirety of the occupation of the drill site) her conditions of release bar her from being within 75 metres of pipeline worksites.
The recent events also differ from previous conflicts between land defenders and the pipeline company in that no journalists were present.
Also in November, Amber Bracken, on assignment for The Narwhal, and Michael Toledano, filming a documentary for the CBC, were both on site to document the events as they unfolded. Bracken and Toledano were arrested when RCMP raided Coyote Camp. Their charges were later dropped by Coastal GasLink.
Brown, with the RCMP, told the CBC these actions deviate from previous actions carried out in opposition to the pipeline project.
“This has nothing to do with protest activity, whether it be legal or illegal,” he said. “This strictly has to do with a very, very serious and significant criminal investigation.”
Premier John Horgan and other government officials were quick to condemn the actions, with Horgan describing it as “reprehensible.”
“My thoughts are with the workers who were traumatized by this attack and with the RCMP officer who was injured,” Horgan said in a statement published on Feb. 18. “Intimidation and violence should be condemned by all British Columbians.”
Horgan did not make a public comment when Indigenous land defenders and journalists were arrested at gunpoint on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. During the arrests, RCMP officers used an axe and a chainsaw to break down the door of a tiny house to extract the unarmed land defenders.
Coastal GasLink told The Narwhal security cameras at the location were disabled at some point during the night but workers captured some footage with cell phones, which was turned over to the RCMP to assist in the investigation.
The RCMP published brief clips of this footage on Feb. 22 which show several unidentifiable individuals masked and wearing white camouflage swinging axes at trucks, spray painting truck windows and setting off flare guns.
The RCMP declined to answer whether the officers spoke to anyone during the conflict or warned anyone of potential arrest. The first press release issued by the RCMP noted conflict and barricades at the 41 and 43 kilometre marks on the Morice River road, but did not say whether they encountered or interviewed any potential suspects at Gidimt’en checkpoint, a series of structures beside the road at the 44 kilometre mark, known to house land defenders.
Also unknown — and unanswered by the RCMP — is whether suspects were travelling by foot or in vehicles and if suspects travelled between the blockades on the Morice River road and the drill site or if there were multiple groups at different locations.
Coastal GasLink noted in addition to the damages to heavy machinery and camp facilities “equipment hydraulic and fuel lines were also cut, causing dangerous leaks.” The extent of the environmental impact is still unknown, as are the company’s plans to address the impacts. Coastal GasLink told The Narwhal it will be arranging a site visit with provincial regulators in the coming days.
While it remains unclear who was behind the damages and to what end, conflicts over the pipeline have been building for over a decade and previous attempts to stop construction on Wet’suwet’en territory resulted in the issuing of a court injunction against anyone who attempts to impede the project.
This B.C. Supreme Court ruling led to numerous arrests, which garnered international attention in 2020 as solidarity movements across the country and beyond shut down rail lines and port facilities.
Coastal GasLink repeatedly asserts its work is “lawful, authorized [and] fully permitted” and notes the company has signed agreements with 20 First Nations along the pipeline route — but Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have staunchly opposed the project from the get-go.
The First Nations that signed agreements with the company and the province are elected band councils, which govern reserve lands, much like a municipality has an elected mayor and councillors that oversee decisions within town boundaries. The hereditary chiefs on Wet’suwet’en territory are responsible for the entire territory, which spans 22,000 square kilometres.
The hereditary governance system predates the reserve system, which was implemented by settlers during early colonization.
In 1997, a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling confirmed that B.C. and Canada had never extinguished the inherent Rights and Title of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan people. While the Delgamuukw-Gisdaway case irrefutably affirmed Rights and Title and jurisdiction over the lands and waters on the nations’ respective territories, it left some legal uncertainties which made room for the province to continue approving projects without first acquiring the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Indigenous people impacted.
When the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs first issued an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink on Jan. 4, 2020, they noted their laws predate and supercede Crown laws.
“Anuc ‘nu’at’en (Wet’suwet’en law) is not a ‘belief’ or a ‘point of view,’ ” the chiefs wrote at the time. “It is a way of sustainably managing our territories and relations with one another and the world around us, and it has worked for millennia to keep our territories intact. Our law is central to our identity. The ongoing criminalization of our laws by Canada’s courts and industrial police is an attempt at genocide, an attempt to extinguish Wet’suwet’en identity itself.”
Shiri Pasternak, co-founder and former research director at the Yellowhead Institute, told The Narwhal the roots of the conflict can be traced back to the onset of colonization.
“You have an entire economic and political system intertwined from the beginning that is about the dispossession of Indigenous lands, in order to privatize the profit and socialize the risk of that development and extraction,” she said in an interview. “There’s no spaces within the system for Indigenous people to have jurisdiction, because the whole system is this form of governance that organizes violence through that very distinction.”
Last year, tensions started building again after the pipeline company bulldozed an archaeological site near the confluence of Ts’elkay Kwe (Lamprey Creek) and Wedzin Kwa, under permits issued by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. As the company prepared to drill and lay pipe under the river, land and water defenders felt the urgent need to act.
In documents obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information legislation, Dan Wyman, regulatory lead at Coastal GasLink wrote an email to the commission on Dec. 9, 2021, noting “grading has restarted at the Morice drill pad, we expect civil and preparatory work to continue all the way through until drilling starts in January.”
In early January, the Hereditary Chiefs held a peace and unity gathering to publicly reaffirm Wet’suwet’en Rights and call on governments to “cease supporting industries and developments that are detrimental to the lands and authorities of the Wet’suwet’en.”
“This is about peace and unity. Not once have the Wet’suwet’en been violent,” Dinï ze’ Na’moks said at the event. “Not once did we ever say we were going to give up either. This is home.”
Pasternak said she doesn’t know what happened at the site but noted the actions would be “especially egregious if this was done without the consent of [Wet’suwet’en] leadership, because it’s ultimately their land and their territory.”
But she added the escalation is not surprising.
“What do you want people to do if you’re stealing their land, over and over and over again? It’s the logical conclusion of this conflict.”
The as yet unknown impact of millions in damages and further construction delays comes as Coastal GasLink is embroiled in an ongoing dispute with LNG Canada over cost overruns and project delays.
In its most recent quarterly report, TC Energy acknowledged the dispute and noted it established a loan agreement to provide “additional temporary financing to the project, if necessary, of up to $3.3 billion as a bridge to a required increase in the $6.8 billion project-level financing to fund incremental costs.”
It further stated that as of the end of 2021, $238 million was outstanding on the loan. It remains unclear who is responsible for this debt and how the money will be repaid.
The company is also facing potential fines for repeated environmental infractions, as The Narwhal recently reported. Those fines, according to the province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, could include up to $1,000,000 for a first conviction and up to $2,000,000 for subsequent convictions, plus $750,000 every day the company remains out of compliance with provincial environmental guidelines.
It is not known how long construction will be delayed or when the drilling under the river is scheduled to start.
The Narwhal will continue to follow developments and post updates as new information emerges. If you have any tips for us, please reach out to our team at email@example.com.
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