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British Columbia Court Convicts Three Indigenous Land Defenders

Above photo: From left, Corey Jocko, Shaylynn Sampson and Sleydo’ Molly Wickham stand outside the Smithers courthouse.  Amanda Follett Hosgood / The Tyee.

But defence will push to stay the verdicts based on alleged RCMP rights violations.

Three Indigenous land defenders charged more than two years ago with defying a court order have been found guilty of criminal contempt in B.C. Supreme Court.

Justice Michael Tammen, who delivered his decision this morning, will now consider an application by all three to stay the charges based on alleged misconduct by RCMP officers during the arrests, which occurred along the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in Wet’suwet’en territory on Nov. 19, 2021. The hearing began following the verdict this morning.

“There can be no doubt that Sleydo’, in occupying the metal structure on Nov. 19, 2021, knew that her actions would tend to depreciate the authority of the court,” Tammen said, adding that two others arrested the same day and standing trial this week were defying the order and “reckless” in blocking access to the pipeline route.

Criminal contempt penalties can include fines or imprisonment.

Sleydo’, who also goes by Molly Wickham, is a member of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and a prominent figure in the years-long dispute over the controversial project. She was previously arrested on Jan. 7, 2019, the first of several high-profile police actions since the B.C. Supreme Court granted the injunction five years ago.

On Nov. 19, 2021, Sleydo’ and Shaylynn Sampson, who is from the Gitxsan Nation, were among eight people arrested while inside a small metal structure, or “tiny house,” located next to the Marten Forest Service Road in an area Coastal GasLink intended to use for storing pipe. Also arrested inside the structure were two journalists, one of whom, Amber Bracken, is now suing the RCMP over her arrest and detention.

Several other people, including Corey Jocko, who is Haudenosaunee, were arrested in a separate structure located on a nearby worksite where Coastal GasLink was preparing to drill under the Morice River, the court heard this week. Known in the Wet’suwet’en language as Wedzin Kwa, concerns about impacts to the waterway have been central to the nation’s opposition to the pipeline project.

While Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership has expressed opposition to pipelines through the nation’s traditional territory since before Coastal GasLink was first proposed, the company has repeatedly pointed to impact benefit agreements signed with five of six Wet’suwet’en elected band councils as evidence of support for the project.

During closing arguments Thursday, defence lawyer Frances Mahon acknowledged that the court had likely heard enough evidence to convict Sleydo’ and Sampson of criminal contempt of court. During three days of testimony earlier this week, the defence did not call any witnesses. Crown witnesses included RCMP officers, Coastal GasLink workers and employees with the company’s private security firm.

While civil contempt requires proof that an accused was aware of and deliberately defied a court order, criminal contempt is distinguished from civil contempt when it is carried out in a public way “that would tend to depreciate the court’s authority,” Crown prosecutor Kurtas Welch said.

BC Prosecution Service declined to lay criminal charges against dozens of people arrested on Wet’suwet’en territory in 2019 and 2020 but agreed in June and July 2022 to lay criminal contempt charges against 19 people arrested in November 2021, including Sleydo’, Sampson and Jocko. Some have since pleaded guilty.

In November, Sabina Dennis was found not-guilty of criminal contempt after Tammen ruled she intended to play a peacemaking role when she stepped onto a bridge on the Morice road, an area covered by Coastal GasLink’s injunction.

The Crown also declined to lay charges against others who were in the same cabin at the drill site where Jocko was arrested, determining that the injunction script read by RCMP officers “was limited to road blocking and did not include the broader language of the injunction,” Crown prosecutor Tyler Bauman said last year.

But in arguing the case against Jocko, prosecutor Welch focused on an interaction he and several others had with two people working for Forsythe Security, Coastal GasLink’s private security firm, five days before his arrest.

The court saw video recorded by the security workers in the early morning on Nov. 14, 2021, as they approached a group of people, including Jocko, who were standing near fallen trees that were barricading the Morice Forest Service Road about 39 kilometres south of Houston, B.C.

Jocko “refused to listen” as the workers read a script that included relevant portions of the injunction, instead yelling over the security officers, Welch said, arguing it proved Jocko had knowledge of the injunction prior to his arrest.

“Those individuals included Corey Jocko, who was clearly visible in the recording while he was screaming at the security members,” Welch said. After reading the script, the security advisor left a copy in a plastic bag, he added.

Mahon argued the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Jocko had “adequate notice of the injunction’s material terms” prior to this arrest.

“Mr. Jocko does not deny that he was arrested in a cabin on the drill pad on Nov. 19, 2021, in view of members of the public and the police,” she said in her closing arguments. But she added that it was unclear what was being said in the script read by security workers or if it mentions the injunction, a result of the words being “drowned out by intermittent howling sounds” coming from Jocko.

“At most, we have evidence that he was in the area for five days until his arrest,” Mahon argued.

But Tammen determined that Jocko did have prior knowledge of the injunction during his arrest.

“With repeated listening, it is clear that the officer alerted Mr. Jocko to the operative terms of the injunction,” he said. “I’m satisfied that the security officer read from a prepared script, which informs Mr. Jocko of the clear terms of the injunction, which Mr. Jocko was subsequently breached by his actions on Nov. 19, 2021.”

With the conviction of the three defendants, court moved today to begin hearing witnesses in the defence application to stay the charges based on what they describe as widespread Charter violations and excessive use of force during the arrests.

The hearing is scheduled to continue throughout next week.

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