A second Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief is denouncing the hereditary leaders at the heart of the dispute over the future of the Coastal GasLink LNG project in Northern British Columbia.
“These five so-called hereditary chiefs, who say they are making decisions on behalf of all Wet’suwet’en, do not speak for the Wet’suwet’en,” Gary Naziel said. “They are neither following nor abiding by our traditional laws. They are changing them to suit their own purposes, to benefit themselves,” he told The Globe and Mail.
In doing so, Mr. Naziel adds, many hereditary chiefs and matriarchs are being disrespected, bullied and targeted. This echoes what Rita George, a hereditary subchief and expert in Wet’suwet’en law, said on Thursday. Mr. Naziel, from the Laksilyu (Small Frog) Clan who was groomed for leadership from birth, says the Wet’suwet’en name “is being dragged through the mud and used by other First Nations across Canada to wage their own battles.”
The Globe was unable to reach any of the five hereditary chiefs who have been vocal in their opposition to the project cutting through Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Wet’suwet’en Nation is organized into five hereditary clans and 13 houses, or subgroups. Each of those subgroups has the position of house chief, also known as head chief, and secondary leaders known as subchiefs, such as Mr. Naziel.
A growing movement of hereditary chiefs is considering taking action against the five men, possibly by blockading the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society governed by hereditary chiefs, which is known locally as “the OW,” he adds.
Mr. Naziel says he is coming forward in an attempt to “restore” the Wet’suwet’en legal system: “I am speaking out because they are changing our system. I find myself forced to go to media to try to save it.” Doing so causes him great pain, he adds: “Our elders taught us to be quiet until we are asked to speak. When you do, you weigh your words. You speak from the heart.”
“Many, many of us feel this way. More will come forward. Not in anger, but in trying to bring out the truth. We need to keep our system alive the true way. We have sat back long enough.”
The heavy machine operator with Kyah Resources Inc. also spent eight years as an elected band councillor with the Witset, the largest First Nation along the pipeline route. This includes the period when the community signed a benefits agreement with Coastal GasLink.
All 20 elected band councils along the route, including five elected Wet’suwet’en councils, reached benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink. Those councils were created under the Indian Act and have authority over federal reserves, the small land parcels set aside under the act.
Many Wet’suwet’en leaders and community members, however, maintain that they have jurisdiction and authority over 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory that sits in the middle of the pipeline’s path. The territory has never been ceded and is not subject to a treaty.
While the governing principles of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and its hereditary chiefs are anchored in their own cultural traditions and recognized in major court cases, there are disagreements over how those systems work in practice.
Mr. Naziel says he felt the need to speak up because their customary legal system is being subverted by the five leaders who have been communicating with media on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en.
“Our governance system is in the feast hall. These five chiefs are making decisions at the OW office. They do so without consulting their hereditary [subchiefs]. This makes them dictators.”
Customary law stipulates that they “must take direction from their subchiefs and their matriarchs,” Mr. Naziel said. “They do not. That is not our system of governance.”
“I have taken direction from my matriarchs and my clan in coming forward. I only speak for my clan. I cannot speak for other clans.”
Others share Mr. Naziel’s concerns.
Marion Tiljoe Shepherd is a member of the Witset First Nation. She is of the Gilseyhu (Big Frog) Clan, and a member of the Unist’ot’en (Dark House). Ms. Tiljoe Shepherd owns a trucking company in Houston, B.C. She traces her lineage to her grandmother, who served as Knedebeas, chief of Dark House. Her mother is a shareholder of a trap line near the pipeline route where police have twice raided protest camps.
She says the five hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline should be listening more.
“I don’t want to have to oppose them. But it’s not right what they are doing. They are not listening to their clan.”
Shirley Wilson (Big Frog Clan, Birch House) lives on the south shore of François Lake in the Skin Tyee First Nation, near the eastern boundary of Wet’suwet’en territory. Ms. Wilson initially opposed the pipeline, but has since come to see it as “an answer to the dilemma of poverty plaguing our people.”
“We are losing our cultural traditions over this pipeline battle. They are not following our traditions. They are not practising our real ways," she says of the five hereditary chiefs. "They are blending their own, modern perspectives, trying to fast-track the naming process. You have to earn your name.”
Mr. Naziel further says that lineage bars three of the five men from assuming the leadership roles they hold on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en.
“We are a matrilineal system. We inherit our lineage from our mothers. Alphonse Gagnon, Warner Naziel and Frank Alec are not from the Wet’suwet’en nation. [Mr. Gagnon] and [Mr. Naziel] are Gitxsan. [Mr. Alec] is from the Lake Babine Nation.”
This makes them “name holders,” not hereditary chiefs, he says. “Name holders cannot have any say for what happens on our territories. They cannot make decisions on behalf of the clan.”
Mr. Naziel’s name came from his great grandfather, Johnny David, who was chosen to be the first Wet’suwet’en chief to give evidence in Delgamuukw, the seminal 1997 Supreme Court case. Mr. David’s testimony helped prove that the Wet’suwet’en have stewarded the land for thousands of years and have a right to continue to do so.
Titles and land are passed through the mother’s clan, anthropologist Antonia Mills said in a 2019 affidavit submitted in court proceedings related to the Coastal GasLink project. A person born to a Wet’suwet’en woman is considered Wet’suwet’en.
Mr. Naziel also disputes the way that two of the men – Warner Naziel, who is his cousin, and Mr. Alec –assumed their leadership roles.
In 2015, Gloria George (Smogelgem), Darlene Glaim (Woos) and Theresa Tait-Day (Wi’hali’yte) helped form the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition. They said they wanted to bridge the gap between hereditary governance and elected band councils. All three were subsequently “feathered” and stripped of their titles.
Last year, Mr. Alec replaced Ms. Glaim as Woos, head chief of Grizzly. In 2016, Warner Naziel replaced Ms. George as Smogelgem.
“They did not get their names the proper way. They took them,” Gary Naziel said.
With a report from Mike Hager in Vancouver