On Lethal Overwatch

by Bob Worcester

Many of us were rightfully shocked to read a recent report that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were prepared to assign snipers to the removal of the Wet’suwet’en roadblock opposing the northern liquid natural gas (LNG) pipeline. Reports suggested that “lethal overwatch” (a newspeak term for the deployment of armed snipers) was sanctioned in dealing with the removal of protestors. Subsequent investigation has not clarified the intent or context of the RCMP planning and there has been, to my knowledge, no official confirmation or denial of the report.

It’s complicated.

One may be shocked and even outraged that lethal overwatch was discussed in the context of a peaceful protest on the unceded land of the Wet’suwet’en people, but there should be no doubt that the RCMP is now, and has always been, sanctioned to use lethal force should it be deemed necessary. Whether or not lethal force is actually used is a situational judgment call which one would hope was never contemplated in this situation.

A complication in this instance was that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs occupy unceded territory based on historic land claims that have been famously addressed by the Supreme Court of Canada and remain under negotiation with the Province of BC. This is further complicated because the sanctions for “lethal force” are derived ultimately from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with its “doctrine of discovery” whereby “non-Christian” lands were declared fair game for European explorers. By this doctrine Canada was deemed “terra nullius” or “empty land” which, when claimed for the Crown, gave sovereigns the legal right to occupy, govern and defend that land.

Needless to say, indigenous populations do not recognize the “discovery” of their lands as a basis for occupation or governance and, even now, the unceded lands of British Columbia remain a matter of negotiation between “nations.” What should be clear is that the legalities of this are derived directly from the use of force as experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples ever since 1500. French sovereignty was replaced by English sovereignty on the Plains of Abraham. British sovereignty was secured in 1812 by the British colonial army.

Legal niceties aside, Canadian governance depends on its military protection from external threats and its police protection from internal threats. There should be no doubt that should protests over the application of Canadian laws be framed as “threats” then the state will act forcefully to the extent deemed “necessary” to preserve its sovereignty. State-sanctioned violence will usually exceed whatever other violence it may encounter. Non-violent protest is only effective in morally constrained jurisdictions where it is not perceived as a serious threat to the “rule of law.” Where protesters confront “private” interests there may be some degree of tolerance since “private” violence is usually limited by law.

But there are no limits when the law itself is threatened. To the extent that Wet’suwet’en chiefs and protestors claim jurisdiction over their traditional lands they may rightfully refuse to acknowledge the RCMP’s jurisdiction. Should they be successful in that, however, they should not be surprised to be faced with a military force that defines them as an “external” threat to sovereignty rather than an “internal” one.

Most likely it will not come to that but it should surprise no one when states use sanctioned violence to serve their purposes “as deemed necessary.” They may disguise it or downplay it, but that is just what modern states do. To be identified as an “enemy of the state” puts one in a precarious position as a target of state-sanctioned violence “by all means necessary”, meaning “no limits.” One might imagine a situation where one’s integrity requires forceful opposition to the power of the state but, for now, let’s not go there.

To further complicate matters, the First Nations LNG Alliance claims that 20 native groups have signed agreements with the Coastal Gaslink pipeline and that there has been extensive consultation with both traditional leaders and elected band councils. The LNG terminal site at Kitamaat is in Haisla territory and has been approved by the elected Haisla Council.

Jurisdiction on pipeline issues may well be contested for years to come. “Settlers” should be wary of getting involved in the internal affairs of the First Nations, though it should be clear that opposition to any new fossil fuel infrastructure is much appreciated and strongly supported by those concerned with the emerging climate crisis. However, as Canadians, we should also be very clear that we do not condone or support the use of “lethal overwatch” in the resolution of our “sovereignty” issues under any circumstances, and that we must atone for those shameful incidents where it was used in the past.


  1. Thanks for the facts, the analysis, and the advice. This is indeed a complicated situation that, for me as a “settler” and a Canadian citizen, requires my respectful and careful thought. It is all too easy to jump in with opinions and the taking of sides. Our world is not black and white.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article, Bob. In spite of your level headed, well supported and grounded writing style, I am moved emotionally as well. Anger, disgust and shame rise to the surface. Fortunately, I observe many close at hand and close to my heart who are not willing to be blinded by euphemisms and gov-speak twists of truth. We keep on keepin’ on with hope for a better future.
    In solidarity,

  3. Brent Paterson’s article https://pbicanada.org/2020/01/25/wetsuweten-call-for-legal-observers-in-dispute-over-fracked-gas-pipeline-on-their-territory/ speaks to exactly the same issue in that it has reached the point here in Canada where many people feel the RCMP are the security arm of the corporations instead of being the upholders of justice and decency. We have far too many outstanding significant issues regarding First Nations and Inuit who live in Canada and our federal government has been derelict of their duties for CENTURIES. If you have people who have lived on the land for thousands of years it is democratically incumbent and reasonable upon any intruder to garner the permission of those people prior to doing anything on their land. Just imagine if someone else wanted to come onto your land where your grandparents and great grandparents had been buried and someone wanted to dig a trench to put a pipeline through it, ruin your water sources while they did that and then walk away?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *