The remaining pipeline opponents arrested last week have now been released following a continuation of bail hearings at the Prince George Courthouse, including Gidimt’en Clan member Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo’.
The remaining 10 opponents were released on the condition that they appear in court in February and must also comply with the terms of the injunction order first granted to Coastal GasLink in December 2019.
Those who are Wet’suwet’en, however, were given exception to access the exclusion zone for hunting fishing, or cultural purposes as long as these activities do not take place within 10 metres of Coastal GasLink worksites.
However, arguments arose regarding Wickham’s release as Coastal GasLink sought to prevent Wickham from accessing the exclusion zone for cultural purposes because of “her ongoing activity into the opposition of the order.”
The company’s lawyer Kevin O’Callahan argued that she has chosen to protest in a way contrary to the order and it's not clear from her behavior she will refrain from breaching the order if she is allowed to return to the area.
“More than any other individual arrest Ms. Wickham can be said to lead the protest activities and has called publicly for the support of the blockade.”
However, Wickham’s lawyer, Frances Mahon, said that banning Wickham from her land as a Wet’suwet’en woman would be unnecessary and would impair the public’s confidence in the administration of justice.
“Preventing her from hunting, fishing, trapping, or engaging in cultural purposes within the exclusion zone is also not rationally connected to the breach that has been alleged against her,” said Mahon.
“Preventing her from using or being on the land would simply be punitive and that is not what release conditions is meant to accomplish.”
Justice Marguerite Church said that Wickham was “undoubtedly the leader and spokesperson for this protest group and has made numerous public statements with respect to her opposition to the plaintiff’s construction in Wet’suwet’en territory.”
Church said that while Whickham is not technically a repeat offender as she was not convicted following a 2019 arrest for breaching the order, she believed there was some concern Wickham would not comply with the order as the circumstances are highly suggestive of repeated and deliberate defiance.
However, Church said she was also aware Wickham is a Wet’suwet’en woman and she lives in an area accessed through the Morice West Forest Service Road and the exclusion zone.
“The blanket exclusion suggested by the plaintiff would effectively prevent her from exercising her constitutionally protected aboriginal rights in those areas for so long as these allegations remain outstanding.”
Church ultimately decided Wickham would have to agree to not be within 75 metres of any Coastal GasLink worksite rather than the 10 metres, which was a condition of release for the other Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents who were arrested.
Church said this amendment to the conditions seeks to strike a balance between the rights of Coastal GasLink with respect to minimizing obstruction and interference and Wickham’s constitutionally protected rights as an Indigenous person.
Two other opponents submitted they needed access into the exclusion zone as they are employed by the Gidimt’en Clan.
However, Church determined because they are not Wet’suwe’ten and there are no details regarding their employment an exception would not be made.
A court date of Feb. 14, 2022 has now been set for everyone who was arrested and released.
Opposition among Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to the 670-kilometre pipeline sparked rallies and rail blockades across Canada early last year, while the elected council of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation and others nearby have agreed to the project.
A memorandum of understanding had been signed between the hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments, easing tensions up until now.
Arrests of over 14 came after members of the Gidimt'en clan, one of five in the Wet'suwet'en Nation, set up blockades along a forest service road on Nov. 14.
The road was cleared last Thursday, the RCMP said.
A photojournalist and a documentary filmmaker were among those released by Justice Church yesterday, as they had been arrested while covering the RCMP’s enforcement of the injunction.
Amber Bracken, who was on assignment for B.C.-based outlet The Narwhal, and documentarian Michael Toledano were released on the condition that they appear in court in February.
They must also comply with the terms of the injunction order first granted to Coastal GasLink by the same judge in December 2019.
In a statement released Monday, Assistant RCMP Commissioner Eric Stubbs said the Mounties understand the important role of the media and no one was arrested for being a journalist or doing their job.
He said the pair were among a group of 11 people who had barricaded themselves inside a structure and were given the opportunity to leave the structure before police forced open the door.
Stubbs said they did not identify themselves during discussions with police beforehand, but indicated they were journalists once police began making arrests.
However, Bracken’s lawyer, David Sutherland, argued that his client wore a label on her clothing showing she was a member of the press and carried an assignment letter from the editor-in-chief of the Narwhal.
The Canadian Association of Journalists condemned the arrests of Bracken and Toledano. In an open letter signed by several dozen news outlets and press freedom organizations, it called on Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to "bring about a swift resolution respecting journalists' fundamental rights."
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said a free press is critical to democracy and he hoped the situation would not escalate.
The province has been doing "a significant amount of work over the last number of months to try and de-escalate tensions in the area," he told a news conference.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline would transport natural gas from Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C. to a processing facility in Kitimat. It is more than halfway finished with almost all the route cleared and 200 kilometres of pipeline installed, the company has said.
- with files from the Canadian Press