The Assembly of First Nations and Opposition politicians called Wednesday for the Liberal government to take swifter and firmer action to defuse tensions around a natural-gas pipeline being built through traditional Indigenous territory in British Columbia.
Nationwide protests, including rail blockades, have erupted since the RCMP began enforcing a court injunction barring protesters from a construction site to allow Coastal GasLink to continue with the project.
While the Conservatives are raising concerns about the potential damage to the economy if the Liberals don’t act, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an interview the federal government must solve the underlying issue: a conflict between hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en territory and the elected chiefs.
Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre route, but the hereditary chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation say they have title to a vast section of the land and never relinquished that by signing a treaty.
Without their consent, the project cannot be built, they say, and they’ve repeatedly gone to court to stop it — without success.
Solving the tension between the elected and hereditary chiefs requires a conversation about how to respect First Nations jurisdiction over ancestral lands outside reserves, Bellegarde said.
That’s a conversation that can only be had between Ottawa and First Nations, he said.
“The federal Crown cannot shirk their responsibility,” Bellegarde said.
The Liberals have said the matter is a provincial one and they have no authority to intervene to stop the RCMP.
“We recognize the important democratic right — and will always defend it — of peaceful protest,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday during a news conference in Senegal.
“But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.”
The RCMP have wrapped up their operation to enforce the latest court injunction allowing the project to continue, but protests continued across the country Wednesday.
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said Trudeau needs to take a harder stand.
“His refusal to condemn people breaking the law and violating court injunctions will only make the problem worse,” Scheer said in a statement.
“He had an opportunity to act like a prime minister, instead he was afraid to call out illegal behaviour.”
The suggestion the issue is about upholding the rule of law must be scrutinized, Bellegarde said. While the RCMP is entrusted with enforcing civil and common law, there are generations of Indigenous laws that also need to be respected, he said.
That’s especially true in the context of the reconciliation process the Liberal government has pledged to pursue, he said.
“If you want to talk reconciliation in Canada, there has to be space for respect and recognition of First Nations law and jurisdiction and our title and rights to land and territories,” he said.
For some Indigenous groups, the failure of the federal government to act amounts to the end of the reconciliation process.
“We say today that it was killed,” said Sophia Sidarous, one of dozens of Indigenous youths who staged a three-day sit-in at federal Justice Department building in Ottawa, and later twice blocked downtown traffic with protests.
“This was never just about a pipeline, this was always about Indigenous sovereignty and recognition of Indigenous rights and title.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on Trudeau to return from his current trip to Africa and meet with the chiefs.
“He needs to do the actual work of reconciliation and stop avoiding his responsibility on this important file,” he said on Twitter.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan refused to speculate Wednesday whether the protests could foreshadow what will happen when construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline also ramps up in B.C. That project is owned by the federal government.
Efforts to reach federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett for an interview were unsuccessful.
Bellegarde also called upon the opposing elements within the Wet’suwet’en nation to come together to work out their own differences over the pipeline.
He said the elected chiefs who have signed on in support of the pipeline performed their own due diligence, and should be respected for making conscientious decisions.
“But the bigger piece here is ancestral lands, ancestral territories, and that’s where the Wet’suwet’en themselves through their hereditary chiefs and their clans and their big houses have to get together.”