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Justice (25-42)

RCMP rejects majority of complaints it’s reviewed against B.C. unit that polices resource protests

November 4, 2023

86% of complaints reviewed so far from Fairy Creek protests have been dismissed by the force

Police and activists face off through a barbed-wire barricaded.
RCMP enforce an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge in Wet’suwet’en territory, near Houston, B.C., on Jan. 7, 2019. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

NationTalk: CBC News – Catherine McClarty still has nightmares about her arrest two years ago during an anti-logging protest on Vancouver Island and her experience with a controversial RCMP unit that’s been accused of improper use of force, neglect of duty and more.

As part of ongoing protests against logging of old-growth forests in the Fairy Creek watershed, the 47-year old took part in one of the largest acts of civil unrest in Canadian history.

The Victoria resident was one of more than 1,100 people arrested in 2021 by the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a specialized RCMP unit created in 2017 to police resource-related protests in B.C.

McClarty filed a neglect of duty complaint against C-IRG about her treatment during her arrest. Two years later, she’s still waiting for a response.

  • Watch the full documentary, “Whose Police?” from The Fifth Estate on YouTube.  It will also stream on CBC Gem.

“I saw a completely different side of the RCMP… there were so many violations of Charter rights out there,” McClarty said. 

An analysis by The Fifth Estate found that McClarty is not alone. The RCMP had reviewed less than half of the complaints it received from Fairy Creek as of September 2023, according to data provided by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC).

A protester is led away after an anti-logging protest in the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island
In connection with RCMP enforcement actions in Fairy Creek and Wet’suwet’en territory, 560 complaints were filed against C-IRG. More than half of those complaints did not fit the mandate and were rejected. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Of the complaints it has reviewed from Fairy Creek, The Fifth Estate analysis shows the RCMP has rejected 86 per cent of the allegations against it. “I find it really disgusting and disappointing and I’m angry that there’s been no recourse for their behaviour,” McClarty said.

The complaint

In June 2021, McClarty locked herself to a metal gate on a logging road in the interior of Vancouver Island, about an hour from Port Renfrew. She used a bike lock around her neck, a technique used by protesters to block workers attempting to access logging sites in the area. 

In her improper arrest complaint filed against C-IRG, she alleges the officers who attempted to remove the lock from her neck using a power tool showed little concern for her safety. “They didn’t give me any protective gear. I didn’t get earplugs,” she said. “I didn’t have anything in between the angle grinder and the back of my neck.” 

McClarty said the C-IRG officer had protection from the sparks.  “He had special fire-resistant gloves, he had a hat, he had earplugs, he had all sorts of stuff for protection, but I had nothing.”

McClarty is living with Stage 4 breast cancer and undergoes regular chemotherapy, but said that despite telling officers about her condition, some did not wear their masks during her arrest. McClarty’s complaint was one of 560 filed against C-IRG since 2019. 

RCMP officers extract a protestor from a 'sleeping dragon' contraption cemented into the road at a protest camp for the Fairy Creek anti-old growth logging blockade northeast of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island on Sept. 4, 2021.
RCMP officers extract a protestor from a ‘sleeping dragon’ contraption cemented into the road at a protest camp for the Fairy Creek anti-old growth logging blockade northeast of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island on Sept. 4, 2021. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

The unit has been a lightning rod for controversy in connection with its conduct during protests over logging in Fairy Creek and pipeline construction in Wet’suwet’en territory in the B.C. interior, from 2019 to  2021. Criticism has focused on mass arrests involving pepper spray. There was also a judicial rebuke over the RCMP unlawfully blocking access to certain sites.

McClarty filed her complaint with the commission, an independent oversight body that reviews public complaints against the RCMP. 

What she didn’t realize is that the CRCC didn’t look at her complaint first. Under the provisions of the federal RCMP Act, the force has the first opportunity to investigate allegations against its own officers. “Ugh, I didn’t realize that the RCMP investigates it first. I thought the CRCC would investigate,” McClarty said when told of the process.

An RCMP spokesperson says the complaints were investigated by a team that was independent from anyone involved in the events — a decision made by the RCMP in order to address real or perceived bias.

Issues with oversight

The commission can take the lead on certain complaints, but a CRCC spokesperson says the majority of allegations are handled first by the RCMP. “I would say 99 per cent of the complaints go over to the RCMP for them to investigate. So whether they choose to informally resolve it or investigate is left up to the RCMP in terms of how they handle that,” said Kate McDerby, the commission’s director of communications and stakeholder engagement.

McDerby said the system is set up so the RCMP can engage with public complaints, and 50 per cent of the time an informal resolution is reached. The complaints process is meant to handle complaints about officer’s conduct, she said, while more serious allegations, often involving death or serious injury, go to an external provincial body.

Standing by his officers

WATCH | A former commander supports his officers: Duration 1:41

Former commander John Brewer talks about complaints against a specialized RCMP unit arising from its handling of protests.

Click on the following link to view the video:

In British Columbia, that’s the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC). It says it looked at four incidents related to C-IRG in Fairy Creek and Wet’suwet’en and found the individuals who lodged the complaints did not sustain serious harm or there was no connection between any injury and police action.

In March, the CRCC announced a systemic review of C-IRG operations. It will examine policies and training and whether the unit’s operations violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The commission can look into individual complaints after the RCMP has completed its review. McDerby said if a complainant is not satisfied, then that individual can refer it back to the watchdog for review.

“Is it a perfect system? I don’t know that I would say it is a perfect system,” she said. 

Breaking down the numbers

In Fairy Creek, where mass arrests took place over the spring and into the fall of 2021, C-IRG was the subject of 265 complaints. Of those, 114 fell within the CRCC’s mandate. So far, the RCMP has reviewed fewer than half — 54 in total. Those 54 complaints include 181 allegations, the majority claiming improper use of force, improper attitude and neglect of duty.

The RCMP did not support or terminated 155 of the 181 allegations.  The CRCC is reviewing only six complaints from Fairy Creek.

Knowing that leaves McClarty feeling as if the RCMP is not being held accountable.  “[C-IRG] acted like vigilantes out there with nobody watching,” she said. “They just did whatever they felt like and they treated people terribly.”

In cases where the RCMP did not support the allegation, a report is provided to the complainant giving the reasons why. No explanation is necessary in cases where the RCMP terminated the complaint.

The CRCC says anyone unhappy with the RCMP’s decision has one more option.  “I think that if people who get those reports are not satisfied, they should ask the CRCC to review them,” McDerby said. “Then we would have an understanding of why the RCMP may or may not have supported them.”

In Wet’suwet’en, the majority of complaints filed did not fit the CRCC’s mandate. Of the 295 complaints, only five fit the criteria. 

McDerby said that’s likely because they were filed by third parties, something no longer allowed under recent changes to legislation.  Those five complaints in Wet’suwet’en were all dismissed. They included allegations of improper use of force, neglect of duty and mishandling of property. One complaint is being reviewed by the CRCC.

“We have requested that the C-IRG operations be suspended until the outcome of this investigation is revealed,” said Molly Wickham, a wing chief with the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who was arrested multiple times by C-IRG officers. “Obviously, that has not happened.”

Valid complaints dealt with, RCMP says

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, John Brewer, a former commander with C-IRG who is now an assistant commissioner in B.C., said any valid complaints have been investigated. “Some members have acted out verbally in an unprofessional manner. They’ve been dealt with, absolutely they have,” said Brewer, who is now criminal operations officer for core policing for the British Columbia RCMP.  He said there have been no Criminal Code or code of conduct or disciplinary hearings held as a result of any public complaints against C-IRG.

RCMP officers surround a protester cemented into the ground during a protest in Fairy Creek using a technique called a Sleeping Dragon
Former C-IRG commander John Brewer says his officers face difficult circumstances policing anti-logging protests like Fairy Creek because of sophisticated techniques like a ‘sleeping dragon’ where people cement themselves into the ground. (CBC News)

Brewer, the former head of the B.C. RCMP’s professional standards unit, said his officers are working in demanding conditions, facing off against well-organized protesters using sophisticated methods to slow down arrests.

Among those methods: makeshift tripods on which protesters are suspended more than 10 metres in the air or a procedure known as a “sleeping dragon,” where protesters chain themselves to metal or concrete pipes buried in the ground.

“We have to make those arrests in very difficult situations, whether it’s -30 C, up a logging road up north, or in a heat wave on a logging road out in the west coast of British Columbia,” Brewer said.  “Every time the emphasis is on safety: safety for my police officers, for sure, but safety for the protesters and safety for the workers.”

Brewer said he believes that flooding the system with complaints is a tactic used by protesters as a distraction.

C-IRG under review

It’s not clear when the CRCC review of C-IRG will be complete, but many who spoke to The Fifth Estate aren’t optimistic anything will change. “I don’t think that they have any real teeth to do anything. I think that there needs to be political will to actually make some drastic changes,” Wickham said.

One of the lawyers representing some of those arrested in Fairy Creek is similarly pessimistic.  “There’s limits to CRCC investigative powers and what can happen as a result,” said Karen Mirsky, a lawyer and member of the board of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. 

Catherine McClarty says she's disappointed but not surprised that the RCMP has rejected so many allegations of misconduct by officers during enforcement in Fairy Creek.
Activist Catherine McClarty says that after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, she wanted to fight to protect old-growth forests to assist in dealing with climate change and leave a legacy for her children. (Submitted by Catherine McClarty)

“A public inquiry could have the power to compel officers to testify under oath and so perhaps get to the heart of precisely what the RCMP believed they were doing and why.”

McClarty, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 after the birth of her third child, said she doesn’t know how much longer her chemotherapy will prolong her life.

She is still waiting for her CRCC complaint to be investigated by the RCMP. Meanwhile, she’s launched a civil suit against the RCMP and said she was willing to go to court to testify about C-IRG’s behaviour, but her charges were dropped.

I feel like I can use the time I have left and the money that I have to put toward this because it’s so fundamentally wrong and I’m really bothered by the fact that they can violate my charter rights with no consequences.”

Whose Police?

WATCH | “Whose Police?” on The Fifth Estate with host Steven D’Souza: Duration 44:50

Critics say a controversial RCMP unit in B.C. acts as a de facto private security force for resource companies. Leaked documents show industry leaders provided direction to RCMP bosses.

Steven D’Souza, Lynette Fortune, Laurence Mathieu-Leger