How police say a peaceful, Indigenous-led protest over a B.C. pipeline was hijacked by violent outsiders
CBC News: A security guard was swarmed in a truck near a worksite by a group of people in masks and camouflage firing flare guns. He was then forced to flee into the dead of night, while the assailants escaped.
When the RCMP released those details last week about a recent incident along the Coastal GasLink pipeline project near Houston, B.C., they could have copied and pasted them from a news release they issued more than a year ago.
But that’s where the comparison ends.
Because while the incident on March 26 resulted in the alleged theft of a chainsaw and some unrelated arrests, what happened at the worksite on Feb. 17, 2022, was far more dangerous and destructive. During that attack, assailants swung axes into the side of security trucks, a police officer was injured in a booby trap and tens of millions of dollars in damage was done. But more than a year later, not a single suspect has been taken into custody.
Now, for the first time since the 2022 attack, RCMP are revealing key details about the investigation to CBC News — including who they believe orchestrated the attack that night, how they escaped and how many suspects have been identified.
According to the Mountie in charge of the investigation, a local group of peaceful protesters with environmental and Indigenous land rights concerns was infiltrated by outsiders with a different agenda. “We saw a number of people come into the protest camps that had been involved in previous protests elsewhere in the country, elsewhere in North America, that had a propensity to cause violence,” Chief Supt. John Brewer told CBC News.
Brewer described the outsiders as “anarchists,” a small group of people who aren’t necessarily tied to each other but subscribe to an ideology aimed at causing chaos — in Brewer’s words, “targeting government, government facilities, government agencies, infrastructure.”
He said these anarchists either volunteered or were invited to join the protest, but that once they were in northern B.C., they hijacked the local movement.
Molly Wickham, a local Indigenous leader of the protest who also goes by Sleydo’, believes police are trying to create divisions. “They will use any opportunity to do damage to us and frame people as violent criminals,” she said.
The project and the protest
If completed, the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline would carry natural gas from near Dawson Creek in the east to a massive LNG Canada processing facility in Kitimat on the West Coast, where it would be liquified and shipped to markets in Asia. At $40 billion, the still-under-construction LNG Canada plant is the largest private sector infrastructure project in the country’s history.
If a small group of anarchists are indeed responsible for the February 2022 attack, they have had a big impact on the project and the opposition to it. Private security around the worksite has been beefed up with extra RCMP patrols and surveillance. Fourteen months later, Brewer believes the project is still under threat. He says there’s a police presence there 24/7, 365 days a year
He also says the violence appears to have sapped the momentum of the local protest movement. On a recent visit to the main protest encampment, which is 44 kilometres up a rough logging road from the town of Houston, CBC News encountered only a handful of self-described land and water defenders.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief John Risdale, known as Na’Moks, told CBC News that whoever is responsible for the 2022 attack, it wasn’t sanctioned by local leaders of the anti-pipeline movement. “We would never ever tell anybody or support anybody to do any kind of damage. We said we’re going to do this [protest] peacefully and we have done it peacefully,” he said.
TC Energy, which owns and is building the Coastal GasLink pipeline, has signed benefit agreements with 20 band councils along the route of the pipeline, including five of six elected Wet’suwet’en councils. But several of the Nation’s hereditary chiefs say band councils do not have authority over land beyond reserve boundaries. Those chiefs have not given consent for the project.
The 2022 attack on the worksite came three months after the RCMP’s last raid on the protesters, conducted by the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG). The C-IRG is a controversial new unit that was formed to protect the $14-billion pipeline and other resource projects like it. The C-IRG has spent almost $30 million policing the Coastal GasLink project alone.
In three separate raids over three years, the C-IRG forcibly removed Indigenous activists and their supporters from unceded Wet’suwet’en territory (the land was never surrendered or signed over in a treaty). Indigenous protesters accuse the RCMP unit of using undue force, harassment and intimidation. The C-IRG is currently the subject of a federal probe.
Brewer, who is in charge of the unit, stands by its tactics. He says police had no choice but to enforce a court order forbidding interference with the project.
But when his officers removed unarmed peaceful protesters at gunpoint in late 2021, it marked a turning point in the conflict. For the first time, some protesters were charged with criminal contempt of court.
WATCH | New details from the RCMP more than a year after the attack on the Coastal GasLink pipeline project:
Click on the following link to access the above video:
At the same time, Coastal GasLink ramped up operations at the worksite, an urgent concern for protesters, who worried about the company’s plan to tunnel underneath the Morice River (Wedzin Kwa). The river is a sacred waterway for the Wet’suwet’en people, who have relied on it as a source of salmon and clean, glacier-fed drinking water for centuries. Coastal GasLink says tunnelling under the Morice River should be finished by June, and that the entire pipeline will be in the ground by the end of 2023.
According to records from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, the company has been fined $456,200 for repeatedly failing to protect fish habitat along the pipeline.
The attack and the escape
In a video posted to Facebook in the weeks after the last RCMP raid in November 2021, Molly Wickham said “our warriors are not here to be arrested. Our warriors are here to protect the land and water and will continue to do so at all cost.”
Police believe that intentionally or not, statements like this have served as a rallying cry for the anarchists. About a month after that post went up, a group of 15 to 20 people wearing snow-white camouflage and masks emerged from the forest at the worksite around midnight. First, the attackers scared off private security by swinging axes into the side of security vehicles and firing flare guns. Then their focus turned to destroying everything on site.
When RCMP tried to respond, they found the only road into the site had been blocked with downed trees, burning tires, wire and an old school bus.
WATCH | Raw RCMP video of the February 2022 attack:
Click on the following link to access the vide:
By the time police and private security had cleared the road, the damage had been done. Police say the attackers used a Coastal GasLink excavator at the worksite to destroy other heavy machinery and mobile trailers. The company has never revealed the cost of the attack, but B.C.‘s Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA) estimates the loss at $20 million.
For more than a year, how the attackers escaped remained as mysterious as who was behind those masks that night — until now. John Brewer told CBC News in detail why police say such a large group was able to slip past RCMP even though officers were parked along the only road into the worksite.
When RCMP arrived at the crime scene, some attackers were still there and police gave chase on foot. But when an officer was injured after stepping on a board with nails driven through it — what Brewer calls a “man-trap” — the pursuit was called off over safety concerns.
RCMP photos of the blocked road leading to scene of Coastal GasLink worksite on Feb. 17, 2022, shows downed trees, a school bus and debris that had been set on fire. (Coastal GasLink, B.C. RCMP) The attackers then used snowmobiles and the path that had been cleared for the pipeline — which runs parallel tothe access road — to make their getaway.
While officers were still at the site assessing the threat and securing the scene, the attackers had ditched their snowmobiles at a nearby protest camp to meet up with waiting vehicles. They then drove down the access road until they reached the Yellowhead Highway, and disappeared into the night, according to Brewer. Investigators believe the attack and the escape had been rehearsed.
An email exchange between RCMP senior command obtained by CBC News through an access to information request details a similar but smaller-scale event two weeks earlier, on Feb. 4, 2022. Police wrote that Coastal GasLink reported that “8 masked and camo’d persons” had occupied the worksite that afternoon “after releasing smoke bombs and fire extinguishers for cover.” The pipeline workers retreated into their trucks and trailers while the assailants outside banged on them.
Before the Mounties arrived, the attackers fled the scene on snowshoes, leaving in the same direction they did on the day of the full-scale assault two weeks later. Brewer called the latter one of the most complex situations he’s ever dealt with. “It was planned, it was practised and carried out in a very methodical manner,” he said.
‘A troubling escalation’
The worksite attack was only the beginning. In the months following, the anarchist website Montreal Counter-information posted several anonymous claims of responsibility for more pipeline-related sabotage and violence. There was vandalism at a Montreal branch of RBC, the bank that is funding the pipeline, and then a break-in at a Calgary storage yard where drilling equipment was damaged.
Another post on the website featured a detailed explanation of how pieces of the pipe already underground had been punctured. Coastal GasLink spokesperson Kiel Giddens says that sabotage claim is “dangerous” and “not true.”
One post on the anarchist website stands out from the rest: a claim of responsibility for an arson attack in Smithers, B.C., just up the highway from the worksite.
On Oct. 26, eight vehicles went up in flames in the middle of the night, four of which belonged to the RCMP. The vehicles had the C-IRG markings on them and were parked outside a Smithers hotel, where members of the unit were staying. Police believe the C-IRG was the intended target. “Your mind goes to what else could have happened,” said Smithers Mayor Gladys Atrill. “No one was hurt, thankfully. But that, of course, goes through your mind. [You] don’t want anyone injured. Don’t want anyone killed.”
Brewer called it “a troubling escalation.” He said investigators have “good images” of the people responsible and are still working to determine if they were involved in the worksite attack earlier last year.
It was troubling for officers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, too. They’ve been tasked with inspecting and monitoring work on the pipeline. A day after the arson, a Fisheries officer referred to the fire in Smithers in an email, writing to a colleague, “we should avoid monitoring in this area while these types of activities are still occurring.” CBC News obtained the email exchange through an access to information request, and it was first reported by The Narwhal.
Call to anarchists
While Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief John Risdale has said that local leaders of the anti-pipeline movement didn’t sanction the actions at the Coastal GasLink worksite, a week before the arson attack in Smithers, local protest leader Molly Wickham went on Facebook and called on anarchists to join her cause.
Wickham has also appeared on the anarchist podcast This Is America, where she emphasized the “allyship between Indigenous warriors and anarchists,” saying, “I think that combining those two groups particularly is a really powerful move against the state.”
CBC News has uncovered connections between anarchists and some Indigenous warriors who were invited to the pipeline protest. One of them is Skyler Williams, a leader of the 1492 Land Back movement, a conflict involving the people of his Haudenosaunee community of Six Nations.
According to court documents, as recently as two years ago, Williams had been in communication with Alex Hundert, an alleged anarchist who served jail time for planning violence that broke out at the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. In March of 2021, a judge ordered Hundert to stay away from Williams. It’s unclear whether that order still stands.
Last year, Williams pleaded guilty to mischief and failing to comply with an undertaking for his part in the land dispute in Caledonia, Ont. He also has a record in B.C., after pleading guilty to criminal contempt of court for breaking the Coastal GasLink injunction. CBC News pulled the court documents that detail every arrest related to the pipeline injunction since 2018 and then cross-referenced those names with other sources. We found roughly 70 per cent of the people taken into custody were not from the area. Some were from other parts of B.C., some from other provinces and two were from the U.S.
One of the people taken into custody was Anton Bueckert, who describes himself as an eco-anarchist. Originally from Ottawa, he now lives in Mexico and writes an anarchist themed newsletter on the Substack platform. Bueckert was arrested in the 2019 RCMP raid in B.C. and charged with assaulting a police officer with a weapon. The charge was stayed last year. He was also arrested in Quebec for chaining himself to an Enbridge pipeline in 2015 and again in Minnesota after clashing with police while trying to disrupt a pro-Trump rally in St. Paul in 2017.
CBC News reached Bueckert via email. He did not answer our questions about the anarchist movement’s possible involvement with the Wet’suwet’en protest. Instead, he directed us to a January posting he made on his newsletter. “Right-wingers like to accuse anarchists of being outside agitators, and pretend that anarchists are maniupulating [sic] indigenous land defenders, but really what anarchist [sic] have been doing for years is supporting the indigenous factions whose politics are resonant with theirs [sic].”
In a lengthy interview, Molly Wickham defended her decision to seek the support of anarchists, telling CBC News she doesn’t know who committed the worksite attack, but that she doesn’t feel responsible for it. “Absolutely not. I think that we have a really big, huge fight on our hands as Indigenous people. I think that people identify with the human rights violations that are happening here, the destruction of the territory that is happening here… and I think that … other people see that in our struggle.”
WATCH | Protest leader says she doesn’t know who was behind the attack:
Click on the following link to access the above video:
‘We will have arrests made on this file’
None of the people featured in this story have been named as suspects in the attacks. CBC News has no information suggesting they took part in the worksite attack or arson in Smithers. As the cop in charge of the worksite investigation — which had 40 officers dedicated to it at one point — John Brewer said he wants to make sure that when charges are laid, they stick. He says that’s why he won’t say when arrests might be made. But he insists they will be.
In December, B.C.‘s Independent Contractors and Business Association put up a $100,000 reward for information leading to arrests and charges. The organization’s president, Chris Gardner, said he wanted to give the police investigation a boost. “We were a little concerned that things had gone a little quiet,” Gardner told CBC News. Brewer said the reward has been “helpful,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
He did reveal to CBC News that so far, his team has identified more than half a dozen suspects who are being monitored. He said police have DNA evidence, a lot of video of the attackers and that they’ve been able to narrow down which of the protesters would be capable of operating an excavator so efficiently. He also said some protesters have been co-operating with the investigation and pointing fingers.
Wet’suwet’en band member Bonnie George, who works for Coastal GasLink and supports the project, says the recent violence turned many local protesters away from the movement. “A lot of our local community members were participating in some of the training they [the protesters] had, and a lot of them came back and shared some of their experiences with family members, because they got scared, because that’s not our way,” said George.
She says the number of protesters living in the camp near the worksite has dropped off since the violence occurred. Even so, security there remains tight — so much so that Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief John Risdale was recently turned away when he asked to take a look at the worksite.