A group of nearly 120 members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is calling for an emergency meeting with hereditary leaders after last Thursday’s attack on workers at a construction camp for a controversial natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.
“It remains very evident that the Nation is extremely divided and that militant outside influences have created a violent and confrontational dynamic onto our territories,” said the letter dated Wednesday. Its signatories include Maureen Luggi, elected chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, formerly known as the Broman Lake Indian Band. She and others supporting the letter say that it’s time to find ways for reunification amid divisive issues, notably the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“One perceived solution: to make sure that the hereditary and elected leadership work together in all decision-making processes in recognition of the fact that both entities provide varying degrees and aspects of support to the Wet’suwet’en,” the letter said.
According to accounts from the RCMP and Coastal GasLink, about 20 masked people swarmed the company’s remote work site in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, hitting some vehicles with axes and resulting in workers fleeing from the location. The attack has resulted in millions of dollars of damage and once again thrust the Coastal GasLink project into the spotlight.
The project has been the target of sustained opposition from some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who say the company does not have the consent of hereditary leaders to build the pipeline through the Nation’s traditional territory. About 190 kilometres of the pipeline route crosses through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
The letter highlights the internal tensions and unresolved governance issues in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, which has a traditional governance system based on a system of clans, houses and hereditary chiefs but whose members are also part of communities organized under the band council system imposed by the Indian Act. The letter also highlights the discomfort some Wet’suwet’en Nation members felt as a result of the Coastal GasLink dispute becoming a magnet for people, and funds, outside the community.
“A portion of Wet’suwet’en territory has been occupied by those from outside the Gidimt’en/Wet’suwet’en and are funded via donation campaigns … however those who are primarily accessing those funds are not from the clan or our Nation but from those outside our Nation,” the letter states.
“It is also critical to understand that just because there are Wet’suwet’en Nation members who support the pipeline, does not in any way make them ‘less Wet’suwet’en,’ ‘less traditional,’ nor does it make them ‘sellouts.’”
The letter is addressed to one of the Wet’suwet’en house chiefs, Frank Alec, whose hereditary name is Woos, and to Molly Wickham, a subchief whose hereditary name is Sleydo’. Both have been prominent opponents of the pipeline and both recently made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a panel that reviews Indigenous rights concerns.
The Feb. 7 submission, endorsed by groups including the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Greenpeace Canada, says the “forced industrialization and police militarization of We’suwet’en land” violates Canada’s obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The RCMP continue to investigate the attack, but no one has claimed responsibility. The Prince George Post quoted RCMP Chief Superintendent Warren Brown as saying that police “have no idea who the 20-plus are, but we have a good idea who one or two are” and would focus on those people and build the investigation from there.
The Office of The Wet’suwet’en, representing the hereditary chiefs, in a statement Monday said it did not have enough information to make any comments regarding the situation, but was concerned for people’s safety in the area and did not support violence.
The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline would carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the West Coast and is a key link in the $18-billion LNG Canada project now under construction in Kitimat, B.C.
On Twitter, a group identified as Gidimt’en Checkpoint that is campaigning against the Coastal GasLink project, said Wednesday that RCMP have been denying access to Wet’suwet’en people at the 27-kilometre mark of the Morice Forest Service Road.
“Our people have every right and responsibility to be on our own lands. A right that has never been extinguished and land that has never been ceded.”
The group did not immediately respond to requests for comment made through e-mail and social media.
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