Three prominent Indigenous women say a majority of Wet’suwet’en Nation members are in favour of reaping economic benefits from a $6.2-billion pipeline project in British Columbia.
The three women say they feel compelled to speak out after being ostracized by anti-pipeline protesters for supporting TC Energy Corp.'s Coastal GasLink.
Theresa Tait-Day, Darlene Glaim and Gloria George want to give voice to what they consider the silent majority, according to their affidavits, which were filed in B.C. Supreme Court as part of Coastal GasLink’s application to extend an injunction to ensure protesters don’t revive an anti-pipeline blockade.
In 2015, the three women helped co-found the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition (WMC) in an effort to encourage members of their community to make informed decisions about contentious issues.
While the natural-gas pipeline project has been approved by all 20 elected First Nation councils along the route, seven male Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs have led a campaign to oppose it.
The chiefs say they stripped Ms. Tait-Day, Ms. Glaim and Ms. George of their hereditary titles because the women created WMC without proper authority. But the women dispute the validity of the severe disciplinary action taken against them, and argue that the WMC remains an ideal group to help bring the wishes of Wet’suwet’en members to the forefront.
“I estimate that a large majority of our nation supports the project,” Ms. Tait-Day said.
The court case will resume on Wednesday in Prince George, B.C., with three days of hearings scheduled. A judge granted an interim injunction in December, and Coastal GasLink will be asking for an extension, citing the need for construction workers to have safe and unimpeded passage across the Morice River Bridge near Houston, B.C.
“I understand that there are people in our community who do not support the project, including some hereditary chiefs,” Ms. Tait-Day said in her affidavit filed on May 21. “It is because of this division in perspectives that I am committed to working with the WMC to help bring our community together to establish a decision-making process.”
Ms. Glaim and Ms. George said in their affidavits that it is time to bridge the divisions between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose resource development and elected band council leaders who support it.
“The WMC is trying to bring Wet’suwet’en members together, including the hereditary system and the band system, and to include all Wet’suwet’en members to facilitate decision-making for our nation collectively,” Ms. Glaim said.
The blockade on the Morice River Bridge came down on Jan. 11, four days after the RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a police checkpoint along a remote B.C. logging road that leads to the Unist’ot’en protest camp. Unist’ot’en is affiliated with Dark House, one of 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary house groups.
The 670-kilometre pipeline would transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the West Coast, where Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia.
Ms. Tait-Day said she still considers herself a hereditary wing chief (sub-chief), with the position Wi’haliy’te in House Beside The Fire under the Laksilyu clan.
Coastal GasLink names Warner Naziel and Freda Huson as two of the defendants in the court case. Mr. Naziel and Ms. Huson lived together for a decade as a common-law couple. They separated in January.
The pipeline company alleges that Ms. Huson (a Dark House spokeswoman) and Mr. Naziel (also known as Smogelgem, claiming to be head chief of Sun House under the Laksamshu clan) are the architects behind the Unist’ot’en protest camp and blockade.
Michael Lee Ross, a lawyer who represents Ms. Huson and Mr. Naziel, filed a series of court documents earlier this year. “The defendants deny any unlawful intention to disrupt economic activities undertaken by Coastal GasLink,” Mr. Ross said in a filing in February.
Hereditary house chiefs who are opposed to Coastal GasLink say Indigenous authority rests with hereditary and not elected leaders over the traditional territory, in which 28 per cent of the pipeline route would cross.
Ms. George said in her affidavit that she has been the genuine Smogelgem since 2009. She disputes Mr. Naziel’s claim to the hereditary title. “My brother, Leonard George, held the name Smogelgem before me until his death in 2006,” she said.
She emphasizes that the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the umbrella organization that represents hereditary house groups, recognized her as Smogelgem from 2009 to 2016.
“House chief titles are held for life, and after the death of the holder are passed to someone in the matrilineage,” Ms. George said. “We are not ‘stripped’ like bark off a tree.”
Hereditary house chiefs say Frank Alec took over the title of Woos at a ceremony on March 2, but Ms. Glaim said many Wet’suwet’en members consider her to be the true Woos, the hereditary chief title for Grizzly House under the Gitdumden clan.
“We are supposed to work together as people,” Ms. Glaim said. “I hope that our nation can come together to heal from this situation."