Cullen taking RCMP to task over handling of Coastal GasLink pipeline protesters

Vaughn Palmer
Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station at kilometre 39, just outside of Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. PHOTO BY JASON FRANSON /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Dec 6, 2021 *
 “I have seen a disturbing video in which two young residents in my constituency were arrested with undue force." — Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen

VICTORIA — Cabinet Minister Nathan Cullen is challenging the RCMP over its handling of protests at the Coastal GasLink pipeline, claiming police used “undue force” in arresting two of his constituents.

“I am writing today as a resident and MLA for Stikine regarding enforcement behaviour by RCMP in furtherance of a court order in my region,” wrote Cullen in a letter Friday to RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki.

“I have seen a disturbing video in which two young residents in my constituency were arrested with undue force,” continued Cullen.

“I have also participated in many recent meetings in my constituency in which concerns have been raised regarding force used by members of the RCMP during the enforcement action addressing protests.”

Cullen, junior minister of state for land and natural operations in the NDP government, did give the RCMP the benefit of the doubt on one point.

“I also want to acknowledge the RCMP enforcement action appeared to commence only after every opportunity for the parties in the dispute to reach resolution was extinguished,” he wrote the commissioner.

“Notwithstanding the above, I request that you personally review actions referenced in this letter while considering what actions might be constituted as necessary during enforcement actions addressing civil disobedience.”

Cullen’s letter to the RCMP followed the posting of an eviction notice on his constituency office in Hazleton by the Gitxsan Nation.

“You failed to ensure the safety of your constituents, including Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people, from the violence and excessive force used by overly armed RCMP during the months of October to November 2021,” read the statement of eviction issued Nov 26.

Wet’suwet’en members and their supporters were arrested this fall as RCMP enforced a court injunction against blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline.

Some members of the neighbouring Gitxsan Indigenous nation were arrested after they staged a sympathy protest at the railway line in New Hazleton.

The notice from the Gitxsan went on to advise Cullen that his failure to leave the office would lead to him being considered a “trespasser, without permission” on Gitxsan land.

Cullen met Friday with some of the Gitxsan leaders in an effort to address their concerns.

“Had a good, frank and productive meeting with Simgigyat (chiefs) from the Gitxsan government,” he posted on social media.

“Much was discussed and much work to do.”

On the same day he sent off his letter to the commissioner, after clearing the contents with the government.

“Government was aware and consulted with Nathan Cullen on the content of his letter,” said a statement Monday from the office of Premier John Horgan.

“Government MLAs regularly engage with the premier’s office before sending potentially high-profile letters.

“As the purpose of the letter was to relay concerns from his constituents, Mr. Cullen sent it only in his role as the MLA for Stikine. The letter did not refer to responsibilities as minister of state.”

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth made the same distinction when asked if it were appropriate for a cabinet minister to accuse police of using “undue force.”

“He was writing as the MLA for the region,” said Farnworth, and relaying concerns of his constituents.

But Cullen was also representing the interests of the NDP government.

The New Democrats support construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline and the related LNG Canada export terminal now under construction in Kitimat.

They have tried, and so far failed, to resolve the impasse within the Wet’suwet’en nation between hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline and elected leaders who support it.

Cullen himself was part of the latter effort for much of last year.

The government paid him more than $100,000 in fees and expenses on a contract that ended only when he announced he would run for the NDP nomination in Stikine.

The party then expedited the nomination process on Cullen’s behalf, freezing out a prospective bid by Annita McPhee, a member Tahltan First Nation.

After winning the riding, Cullen was awarded a seat at the cabinet table.

His letter to the RCMP maintains the NDP cover story that the government has nothing to do with how the RCMP enforced the court injunction.

“While the Police Act provides authority for provincial officials to ensure an adequate and effective level of policing resources, the management and administration of the RCMP, including all operational actions and decisions, resides with RCMP management, leaders and the federal government,” wrote Cullen.

Alas for the New Democrats, when federal minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu was asked about the recent wave of arrests, she pointed straight back at the province.

“Really, the dispute is with the province of B.C.,” she told Melissa Ridgen of APTN. “Those police forces are contracted through the province of B.C. and they’re under the B.C. jurisdiction.”

Couldn’t Ottawa just say our federal police force is not going to be involved in this?

“That isn’t how that process works,” replied Hajdu.

“B.C. uses the RCMP and pays the RCMP directly to provide those services throughout B.C.

“This is really a dispute between Indigenous people and the province of B.C.”

Hence the disingenuousness of the NDP claim that Cullen was accusing the RCMP in his capacity as an MLA, not as a cabinet minister.

Whether Cullen admitted it or not, he was writing as a member of a government that is trying to evade its responsibility for the messy standoff in Wet’suwet’en territory.

[Top photo: Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station at kilometre 39, just outside of Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. PHOTO BY JASON FRANSON /THE CANADIAN PRESS]