Klappan Valley, in northern British Columbia (B.C.), is an important area to a lot of people.
To many Tahltan people of that region, it's a traditional hunting and food-gathering spot and the source of three fish-bearing rivers.
To environmentalists, it's a flourishing ecosystem that must be protected.
And to Fortune Minerals, a mining company from London, Ont., it's a potentially profitable coal deposit.
While Fortune Minerals conducted an environmental assessment in the area in August 2013, angry Tahltan protesters presented an eviction notice to the mining camp. Tensions escalated when they began encroaching on the mining camp and, at times, moving past the fence and onto the premises. A decision was made to establish a police presence between the two groups to keep the peace.
"We had to have an impartial presence so that we could help facilitate, peacefully, the resolution of what the three entities were trying to achieve," says C/Supt. Rod Booth, who heads the RCMP in B.C.'s North District.
With four vehicles, a couple of ATVs, tents, cots and enough food and water for a few weeks, S/Sgt. Jim Vardy accompanied three members on the four-hour drive to the remote Klappan Valley. Members were hand-selected based on their experience in conflict mediation, camping and outdoor survival.
"We slept in our vehicles on the first night, and the next day we started setting up stage one of the camp," Vardy says. "From there we established what we needed – like more members and equipment – and all the while, refereed the dispute."
Each day, protesters lined themselves along the electric bear fence outside the mining camp, armed with placards, songs and drums. They'd go back and forth between camps, and members kept an eye on their activity from their camp that was built directly between the others.
"They had to drive right by us when they went down to protest so we'd be able to see that," Vardy says.
Members of the newly established Klappan Valley detachment, as it came to be known, were responsible for keeping everyone happy – remaining impartial, keeping the peace and allowing the democratic right to protest unfold as long as it wasn't dangerous to people or property.
"Basically, we listened to their stories," Vardy says. "The mining company had been given permits from the government to go and do what it felt it had a legal justification to do, and on the other side, the Tahltan felt their aboriginal right entitled them to the land and the environmentalists were acting true to their convictions."
Keeping the peace
Once a detachment sign was posted on the wall of the tent, members officially established their presence in the area and worked hard to make both parties feel safe.
"The members were true leaders," says Supt. Lesley Bain of B.C.'s North District. "They used impartial messaging, kept things calm and maintained a peaceful presence. It was really impressive and made me very proud."
They also acted as informal mediators, often spending time at both camps to educate one party about what may upset the other and what to avoid doing.
At one point, the Tahltan camp heard rumours that Fortune Minerals was going to smash the protesters' signs that had been staked out around its property. Knowing that would not go over well with the Tahltan camp, members persuaded Fortune Minerals to keep the signs up.
"It would have been inflammatory and counterproductive," Booth says. "By leaving the signs up, it put good will towards us and the Tahltan folks and ultimately, towards Fortune Minerals, which was seen in a better light as a result."
Despite the real potential for violence, the fact that things remained peaceful in Klappan Valley proved how well the detachment members did their jobs to remain impartial, but also make their position clear that violence would not be tolerated.
"You really had to tread lightly and give and take as best you could, but also know that, if you had to do your job, you were going to do it," Vardy says. "It was peacemaking in the purest sense. That's what it boils down to."