Indigenous people across Canada, and members of the Canadian parliament, have expressed outrage following revelations by the Guardian that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police prepared for the possible use of lethal force against Indigenous land defenders in northern British Columbia earlier this year.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which represents more than 150,000 First Nations people in the province of Manitoba, issued a scathing statement concerning an RCMP strategy document which said that “lethal overwatch” would be required during the 7 January raid.
“This form of state violence is happening to Indigenous peoples around the world,” said AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas. “It is disheartening to know that, even in Canada, this same type of planned violence is still being considered against First Nations.”
In a statement to the Guardian, William Blair, the federal Office of Public Safety minister, wrote: “We are committed to protecting the constitutional right to peaceful protest and are concerned by the unacceptable words and phrases that the Guardian reported were used.”
“Our office has raised this matter with the RCMP,” he continued. “The RCMP is trying to obtain the documents to verify the claims and determine who said what.”
The records seen by the Guardian emerged during court proceedings in British Columbia. They include detailed notes from an RCMP strategy session on 16 January in Smithers, British Columbia, which involved RCMP gold and silver commanders from the agency’s “E” division, and which were recorded by a designated scribe.
The meeting notes, stamped with the name of RCMP Bronze Commander Robert Pikola of the “E” Division, include the reference to “lethal overwatch”.
“Lethal overwatch req’d,” it reads. “Reports to Bronze commander.”
The same section of the document notes that the RCMP would operate a drone during the raid, while in a separate section, it notes the RCMP’s coordination with Coastal Gas Link personnel leading up to the action.
“Task liaison asked to be assigned to attend [industry] tailgate briefing,” the document states. “Industry holds every day.”
Shiri Pasternak, criminology professor at Ryerson University and research director at the Yellowhead Institute, said the RCMP has increasingly collaborated with extractive industries to counteract Indigenous dissent.
“The securitization of fossil fuel projects has become a priority in a country wracked with uncertainty because of Indigenous law and land rights,” she said. “Since the early 2000s, the Canadian government has tightened internal control over the surveillance of Indigenous peoples and more closely integrated industry and security imperatives, which has included sharing classified intelligence across law enforcement agencies and with industry actors.”
A transcription dated 7 January, stamped with the name of Tactical Team Commander Sgt Kevin Bracewell, states that arrests would be necessary for “sterilizing [the] site” and includes instructions to other officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want.”
It also includes the following statement about arrest protocol: “anyone in the injunction area will be arrested, exception will be regalia. There will be talks on how that goes. There is NO get out of jail card.”
An RCMP spokerson responded to the Guardian’s reporting with an e-mail asserting that “lethal overwatch” does not equate to lethal force – a claim the RCMP has also made to other media outlets.
“The police officer(s) who occupy the position of lethal overwatch are tasked with observing, while other police officer(s) are engaged in other duties which occupy attention for example: dialogue with demonstrators or marching in a community parade,” an RCMP spokesperson wrote to the Guardian following the story. “This term does not infer action other than observation.”
But a review of military and law enforcement literature in both Canada and the US, including a memo produced by the RCMP in British Columbia, shows that the term “lethal overwatch” specifically refers to an officer who is “prepared to use lethal force”.
“Lethal overwatch” is a term given to a second person who is providing back-up to the primary person,” states a 2010 memo from a British Columbia-based RCMP inspector. “In situations where the threat level is high and lethal force may have to be used, this second person is prepared to use lethal force because the first person is not in a position to exercise lethal force.”
Previous reporting in the Toronto Star also noted the RCMP’s use of “snipers with high-calibre bolt-action weapons” during the 7 January raid.
The RCMP has deployed snipers during previous confrontations over Indigenous land rights, including in response to 2013 protests against a fracking project in Mi’kmaq territory in New Brunswick.
Marc Miller, Canada’s Indigenous Services minister, announced on Friday that he wants a review of RCMP operations during Indigenous land conflicts. Taylor Bacharach, who serves as a Member of Parliament for the area encompassing the raid, has also called for an inquiry.
Those criticizing the RCMP also include Jagmeet Singh, federal leader of the New Democratic Party, and MP Charlie Angus of Ontario.
This is a hard read, but a must-read. The militarisation of police forces is a problem across the country.— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) December 20, 2019
Threatening families & “sterilizing the site” are not acceptable “strategies” from our national police force. This is not what justice looks like.https://t.co/5RGcroV4h5
According to Jeff Monaghan, a criminology professor at Carleton University focused on Canadian policing and surveillance, the RCMP documents offer a glimpse behind the agency’s public emphasis on reconciliation and negotiation with Indigenous land defenders.
“Clearly, they still see Indigenous land defenders as antagonists – as people who need to be bullied and put into submission,” Monaghan said.