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Observers raise concerns about RCMP tactical unit used in B.C. pipeline arrests

Hundreds of people gathered in support of the Unist' ot' en camp and Wet' suwet' en people during their standoff near Houston, B.C. as they protest against the LNG pipeline during a rally at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

The use of heavily armed RCMP officers to enforce a court injunction and breach an Indigenous blockade along a remote northern British Columbia logging road Monday was unnecessary given the circumstances, an expert says.

Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said social media video that has emerged shows no escalation of violence from protesters that would have necessitated the substantial intervention.

Fourteen people were taken into custody Monday at a blockade southwest of Houston, B.C., where members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation had set up a camp to control access to a pipeline project across their territory.

TransCanada subsidiary Coastal GasLink had obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia ordering the removal of obstructions so preliminary work could begin on a pipeline carrying natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to Kitimat.

The RCMP said officers moved in for the midday arrests after it was determined there could be no resolution, even after meeting with locals a day earlier. It gave warning the blockade would come down.

As for the use of its tactical and emergency response teams, the force said they were deployed in addition to other officers “as part of our measured and scalable approach to enforcing the court-ordered injunction.”

Images that emerged from the camp on social media — most media were not permitted near the actual site — showed a chaotic scene as officers attempted to jump the barricade.

Some protesters were thrown to the ground in a tight area, and several officers were armed with assault-style rifles.

“You also see an embarrassing sequence of events where highly trained police are pushing people to the ground,” said Walby, who has studied the increasing militarization of police. “I don’t think any SWAT team member or leader or trainer would look at those images and say that’s a best practice in Canadian policing.”

Typically, police employ a “one-plus-one” rule of escalation that says officers use one level of force greater than the resistance they’re facing. But Walby said he saw no indication police, confronted with a seemingly peaceful blockade, followed that rule “in an appropriate manner.”

Carla Lewis, a local who was at another roadblock on Monday, said the police buildup in recent days was quite apparent.

“It was absolutely crazy the police force they had out there,” she said Tuesday. “I think we ended up counting about 23 cruisers, just tons of police, a lot of them had camouflage gear. They looked like military, so there was a lot of confusion about whether the military was there, but it was just the tactical unit.”

Lewis said there was a commitment to peace and a political resolution at the blockade. “But it escalated quickly as you can see in the video,” she said. “There were no weapons out there. It definitely wasn’t a violent camp.”

The B.C. intervention is another example of the increasing use of such SWAT units when they aren’t needed, Walby said.

“We found that all these police services have these teams now, but they don’t really have anything to use them for,” he said. “So they end up getting used for things they are not intended for.”

But Michel Wilson, a former Montreal police officer for 31 years who commanded tactical and anti-riot units during his career, said police would want to be prepared.

“Police officers don’t take any chances, and they have the equipment on hand,” he said, noting the RCMP team on the ground was comprised of a mix of tactical and other officers.

Sometimes, heavily armed officers are viewed as an offensive weapon but can be employed as a defensive, dissuasive measure. Ultimately, the security of everyone involved is the police priority, Wilson said.

Wilson said during his career, the tactical units were deployed about 400 times a year in Montreal, mainly in high-risk settings.

“It’s always the goal — we don’t want excessive violence and they (tactical officers) have to have the equipment in case something happens,” Wilson said.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press