The Neocolonialism of Using Police to Enforce Problematic Environmental Policy

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This is the first post in a series edited by Blair Stein interrogating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

As environmental destruction increasingly becomes the issue of our age, protests have grown around climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction that comes with megaprojects such as pipelines and megadams. Nation states are increasingly responding by increasing police powers and/or arrests of protestors. In Canada, this has taken on a distinctly neocolonial character as many of the arrests have been of Indigenous persons and sometimes environmental journalists. This is hardly surprising given the colonial history of policing in our country and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), in particular.

In the important text Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995) Anne McClintock made the argument that the modern world was built on the oppression of persons of colour and women, in the pursuit of money and power. Furthermore, she argues that there are continuities of colonialism that makes the term post-colonial problematic. McClintock maintains that colonialism is very much present in the contemporary age. She expresses a preference for the term neocolonial rather than post-colonial. We should view the RCMP as a manifestation of neocolonialism in Canada.

Historian Sean Carleton has documented the colonial history of policing Indigenous persons in Canada. He has also argued that true reconciliation will require the Canadian state to ‘trade coercion and violence for nation-to-nation diplomacy.’ In his book Lessons in Legitimacy: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Rise of State Schooling in British Columbia (2023), Carleton discusses how residential schools like Kuper Island (now known as Penelakut Island in honour of the First Nations people) “continued to report runaways and regularly worked with Indian agents and police (both the BCPP and NWMP /RCMP) to return them” (262 of 465 Kindle edition).1

Postcard of Kuper Island Residential School, 1941. Library and Archives Canada.

The NWMP was established in 1873 to police the Northwest Territories following the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territory to the Canadian government from the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were established, in part, in response to the Red River Rebellion or the First Riel Rebellion. As well, following the Cypress Hill Massacre, involving Métis and Assiniboine people, the Canadian government expedited the creation of the NWMP. Early detachments worked with Métis and First Nations guides, scouts, and interpreters. The Royal title for the RCMP was eventually bestowed by King Edward VII in recognition of 30 years of policing service. The modern day RCMP, with federal policing responsibilities, were created in 1919 by Prime Minister Robert Borden.

Dating to 2021, the RCMP have been accused of excessive force in the arrest of Wet’suwet’en protesters of the Coastal GasLink and journalists who were covering the story. One of the journalists took video footage of the arrest, which was shared widely with media outlets. The video showed the use of firearms, a police dog and a chainsaw. Protestors were accused of trespassing on private land and arrested under the authority of a 2019 court injunction. This demonstrates how private companies are using the courts and police to enforce corporate policy which is problematic for the natural environment as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us that we are in serious danger of overshooting 1.5C of global warming. Furthermore, the International Energy Agency advises that the world has more than enough fossil fuels to reach net zero by 2050. Recent research advises that 40% of existing fossil fuel projects will need to be decommissioned early to keep global warming to 1.5C. These actions on the part of harmful corporations are coming under more scrutiny as the public becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of fossil fuels and the colonial history of policing. 

Earlier this year, it was reported that the RCMP have spent $50 million policing pipeline and logging standoffs in British Columbia, over the last five years. This money was spent to enforce injunctions received by the forestry and petroleum companies. It reportedly flows through a Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), which was formed in 2017 and has no defined jurisdiction, a flexible mandate, and no government oversight. The information on spending was obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) through access to information laws. There have also been misconduct allegations, lawsuits, and official complaints, including complaints of racism. 

By April of this year, the RCMP put forward the narrative that those protesting the Coastal Gaslink pipeline have been taken over by anarchists, which was reported by the CBC. The view was stated by the Mountie in charge of the investigation, who maintained that a local group of protestors with environmental and land rights concerns had been infiltrated by outsiders with a different agenda. Chief Superintendent John Brown described them as “anarchists.” The CBC reported that “Molly Wickham, an Indigenous leader of the protest, who also goes by Sleydo, believed police are trying to create division.”

That this growth in environmental protest will eventually lead to high levels of violence has been predicted been Swedish scholar of ecology Andreas Malm in his important text How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World of Fire (2021). In the book, Malm made the case that property destruction is a valid tool for climate activism and that we will see more of it as the climate crisis worsens. This raises the important question asked by New York Times film reviewer Peter C. Baker in his 2023 article Will we call them terrorists? Both the book and film by the same name address the complexities of the state enforcing problematic corporate policies that are destroying the natural environment. Many nations were born in revolution, driven by people who in their day would have been considered terrorists acting against the state or state policy.

Recently, in the United Kingdom, the ruling conservative government introduced a new Public Order Bill to give police additional powers to breakup ‘slow walking’ protests on the part of groups such as Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, and Scientific Rebellion. The controversial bill was voted down in the House of Lords but then amended. The bill was said to address growing chaos on the part of environmental groups in the UK. All opposition parties voted against the bill. The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights called the bill “deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with international human rights obligations.” Hundreds of climate change protestors have been arrested in the UK. Protestors are accused of inconveniencing the public by the UK government. In the coming years, we may all have to come to terms with the idea that civil disobedience, in the face of environmental destruction, is less inconvenient than continuing the path of emitting more and more greenhouse gases. Furthermore, using police and the courts to enable environmental destruction is a continuation of colonial economic patterns and colonial ways of thinking that forged the modern world. Nowhere is this more true than in Canada.


1 BCPP stands for British Columbia Provincial Police and NWMP stands for North-West Mounted Police, which was the precursor of the RCMP.

Feature image: A banner and a Haudenosaunee flag on a stopped tank car in Vaughan, Ontario, February 15, 2020, Wikimedia Commons

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Lori Lee is an Instructors in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her Ph.D. is in global and imperial history from the University of Exeter, focusing on the global movement of ideas in the nineteenth century. Her current research interests include the resource curse, environmentalism in the history of international thought, and women and climate justice. At present, Lori Lee is working on her first monograph for SUNY Press. She has also been a contributor to CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, The Globe and Mail, Canada's National Observer, and The Hill Times. Lori Lee has been a vocal advocate in her public scholarship of the need to move away from the development of further oil projects in Canada, and the problems with mega dams in recent Canadian History. She has advised national environmental groups on the political economy of climate change and a just transition off fossil fuels and appeared in national media on the topic. Lori Lee is also pleased to be a member of the NICHE editorial team.

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