The Indigenous demonstrators who were arrested last week during a sit-in at the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources building in Victoria have filed complaints about the use of force by Victoria police.
On Jan. 21 and Jan. 22, protesters of Nuuchahnulth, Wet’suwet’en, Tla’amin, Sto:lo, Secwepemcúĺecw, Namgis, Heiltsuk, Kwagu’ł, Ma’amtagila, Lil’wat, Qayqayt, Lue Chogh Tue, Shishalh, W̱SÁNEĆ, Gitxsan, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations occupied the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources on Blanshard Avenue in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.
According to activists, Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en Solidarity, the purpose of the occupation was to amplify the demands of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership for the RCMP to stand down and remove their blockade on the Wet’suwet’en yintahs and for Premier Horgan to meet directly with hereditary leaders.
Ta’Kaiya Blaney says she was one of 13 people arrested on Jan. 22 after the group occupied the energy and mines minister’s office for 15 hours.
The group describes itself as Indigenous youth land defenders.
Blaney says she witnessed one person suffer a swollen arm and hand after it was pulled by an officer from a lockbox used as a protest device, while fellow protester Aya Clappis says she saw blood on the ground outside and was told a supporter had a gash under his eye.
Neither Clappis nor Blaney personally saw the man described as having the gash, and he did not immediately return a request for comment to The Canadian Press, while the protester with the alleged arm injury declined an interview request with The Canadian Press.
Victoria police said 13 protesters, aged 18 and older were arrested. Police said during the protest officers facilitated access to medicine, food, and water. Police said they also assisted parents who arrived to pick up youth who were present at the protest.
“Despite numerous efforts over 15 hours to resolve the situation without arrests, officers were requested to remove the protesters by the building owner once negotiations failed. Officers acted under the lawful authority of the Trespass Act to effect these arrests,” VicPD wrote in a release following the protests.
“During the arrests, officers spoke directly with protesters, informing each of them of what was occurring at each step of the arrest process. The minimum amount of force was utilized to effect the arrests. As such, the arrests took place over a four-hour period. During the arrests, officers were required to carry protesters from the inside of the building to waiting police vehicles. Additional protesters outside the building made efforts to impede the lawful arrests. Protesters surrounded the officers, who were pushed and shoved while carrying arrestees to the police vehicles. One of these protesters from outside the building was also taken into custody.”
Victoria police have said there were no injuries.
On Wednesday, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said there is misinformation out there regarding the protest.
“I think it’s really important to highlight that the Victoria police officers were acting in the lawful execution of their duties when they started making the arrests of the protesters who had occupied this building for over 15 hours,” Manak said.
He added there were protesters inside and outside the building.
“The Victoria police officers did everything in their power to resolve this incident safely without any arrests. And multiple opportunities were given to the protesters to leave peacefully. And they were told if they continued to stay in the building and not co-operate, that they were going to be subject to an arrest.,” Manak said.
Manak said when officers were bringing people out of the building, they were met with physical and verbal abuse outside.
“That’s where some of the altercations happen. But I can tell you when the police are in the lawful execution of our duties, we have every right to use reasonable force and we tried to do the best job that we could under very difficult circumstances.”
Manak said while social media has indicated the demonstrators were youth, the average age of the 13 people who were arrested were 30 years old.
“The youngest protester was 18 and the oldest protester was 66. And even at 18, our definition of a youth, we follow from the Criminal Code of Canada and the Youth Criminal Justice Act.”
According to Manak, some of the protesters have corrected earlier comments on social media.
“For example, there was some blood that was on the floor and there was a comment made on social media that police were responsible for causing injuries to one of the protesters that resulted in that blood. And I’m glad to see that one, that’s not the case but that the protesters recognized that, that that was actually fake blood that they had brought in just to kind of demonstrate what their cause was,” Manak said.
Manak said food, water and medical attention was not denied to the protesters.
“I can tell you that the actual arrest from the first protester to the last protester, we took four hours. And we took a lot of care and a lot of dialogue and paid a lot of attention to the manner in which these arrests were made,” Manak said.
Manak said he has spoken to some of the officers involved in the arrests and said they were shaken by the incident.
“The accusations, the racial comments that were directed at them, the verbal and physical abuse that was directed at the officers, particularly at the officers that were stationed on the outside, on the outer perimeter stopping the protesters from coming inside to where the officers were trying to negotiate with the protesters for a safe resolution,” Manak said.
“I’m very proud of the officers and how they acted.”
Andrea Spindler, the deputy police complaint commissioner, says her office has received several complaints from people present at the protest. The office is contacting complainants for further information and has yet to decide on next steps, she says.
“Any investigation that happens relating to this incident will be investigated with rigorous civilian oversight by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner,” she says.
Blaney, who is 18 and a member of the Tla’amin Nation in southwest B.C., says the purpose of the occupation was to demand the minister’s office pressure Premier John Horgan to meet face-to-face with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who have requested a meeting.
Coastal GasLink has signed benefits agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline route but the hereditary chiefs say the project can’t proceed without their consent.
The police use of force was “unnecessary,” Blaney said.
“It’s about treating our youth with dignity. That’s not the treatment that we received.”
Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, says in a statement that the police response is “concerning” given the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system.
“We continue to call for peace and non-violence.”
Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en Solidarity said they are committed to continuing to blockade MLA and MP offices nationally until Wet’suwet’en laws are upheld.
With files by Laura Kane, The Canadian Press