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UN urges Canada to end criminalization of land defenders

“Canada is hypocritical. On the international stage they say one thing, but behind closed doors, they do another”

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsHuman RightsSocial Movements

Wet’suwet’en land defenders at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint. Photo from Facebook.

On April 29, 2022, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a letter—their third in total—urging the Canadian government to respect the rights of the Indigenous Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en communities resisting the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia. The CERD asserted that, after reviewing available evidence related to Canadian government support for fossil fuel extraction projects in BC:

the Governments of Canada and of the Province of British Columbia have escalated their use of force, surveillance, and criminalization of land defenders and peaceful protesters to intimidate, remove and forcibly evict Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en Nations from their traditional lands, in particular by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Community-Industry Response Group (CIRG), and private security firms. The information received specifies in particular that the Tiny House Warriors, a group of Secwepemc women, have been the target of surveillance and intimidation, and that numerous Secwepemc and We’suwet’en peaceful land defenders have been victims of violent evictions and arbitrary detentions…


The letter notes that, since the CERD implored the Canadian government to cease forced evictions in December 2019, federal and provincial actions against land defenders have actually escalated. Simultaneously, the letter explains that neither the federal nor the provincial government have implemented new consultation measures with local communities.

Unmentioned in the CERD letter, but important nonetheless, is the fact that journalists have been arrested for covering police actions against anti-pipeline protestors. On November 19, 2021, freelance reporters Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano were detained during an RCMP attack on a tiny house in Coyote Camp on Wet’suwet’en land. The journalists were arrested, handcuffed, and removed from the site. With this action, the RCMP restricted their right to report by preventing them from fully documenting an aggressive police raid on unceded Indigenous territory.

After her release without charges, Bracken described the scene: “Police wore both regular blue uniforms and a militarized green version, the latter laden with assault rifles and tactical equipment. The scene has already become known across Canada—police dogs barking and whining as officers used an axe and a chainsaw to enter the small structure to arrest seven unarmed and peaceful individuals.”

An internal RCMP email later justified the arrest of Bracken and Toledano by claiming the journalists lacked “impartiality.”

Canada has been a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination since October 1970. The UN dictates that Canada is required to uphold the Convention under international law. Any honest student of Canadian history knows that, if international law was applied evenly, the government would have faced charges on the day that it signed the Convention. It is also clear that Canada, as a founding member of the US-led “international rules-based order,” will certainly not have to answer for its refusal to abide by the articles of the Convention. Nevertheless, the CERD’s letters of protest and the growing global awareness of the Canadian state’s belligerent and dispossessive actions against those on unceded Indigenous land shows that an increasing number of people at home and abroad are no longer dazzled by Canada’s carefully crafted illusions of benevolence—that is, if they ever had the privilege of ignorance to begin with.

Sleydo’, a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en territory who may soon face criminal charges for her peaceful resistance, stated at a joint conference of land defenders last month: “When I read the third letter from CERD, I felt overwhelmed by the recognition that our experiences are violations of international human rights and Indigenous rights. The construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, and the RCMP’s treatment of me and other land offenders is a violation of our humanity as Indigenous peoples.”

One of the areas of concern referenced by the CERD is the RCMP’s creation of the Community-Industry Response Group, or C-IRG, in 2017. The C-IRG polices and surveils community resistance to extractive industry, including projects like the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines. The Narwhal and its contributors have published numerous illuminating articles on the alarming conduct of the C-IRG, including “internal emails that reveal how Mounties changed their story about arresting journalists, an exposé that included audio recordings of members making racist comments…an on-the-ground account of its unilateral approach to arresting anyone present during a logging protest in southeast BC,” and for planning raids while engaged in negotiations with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs who oppose the pipeline.

In the words of the BC RCMP, however, the C-IRG “uses a measured approach in facilitating the peaceful resolution of public disorder issues” and “proactively engage[s] all stakeholders through open communication and meaningful dialogue.” A less propagandistic overview by Briarpatch contributors Molly Murphy and Research for the Front Lines explains the unit’s true purpose and the short- and long-term implications of its formation: “The C-IRG is brought in to enforce injunctions, take down blockades, and arrest land defenders. Since its inception in 2017, the C-IRG has been paid through the public purse to protect corporate interests. In doing this, it is accelerating the climate crisis and violating Indigenous Rights.”

Earlier this month, several members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation announced that they are suing the RCMP and Coastal GasLink for a “relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation” on their unceded land. A few weeks prior to the announcement, and despite clear UN concerns about Canada’s repression of anti-pipeline protest, the Crown revealed that it will prosecute 15 land defenders for criminal contempt for allegedly defying an injunction protecting the development of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. On July 7, the Crown will decide whether or not to charge 10 others with criminal contempt, including Sleydo’.

Meanwhile, Wet’suwet’en land defenders informed the public on June 23 that they expect construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to resume in upcoming weeks. As a result, they anticipate an escalation of arrests and rights violations.

“The RCMP sends their goons to push us around,” said Hereditary Chief Woos of the Cas Yikh House of the Gidimt’en clan at May’s land defenders conference. “But we’re not going anywhere. The simple message is that we are going to protect the water, our wildlife, and our ways of life.”

He added: “Canada is hypocritical. On the international stage they say one thing, but behind closed doors, they do another. Stop this racism. We are still here, and we will never surrender.”

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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