Talks between senior government officials and Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs got under way Thursday in a sign of progress toward resolving an impasse that has caused protests and blockades across the country over the past three weeks.
Outside the meeting venue in Smithers, B.C., more than 20 Wet’suwet’en members held a 15-minute pro-pipeline rally, interrupted at the beginning by a shouting match with supporters of the hereditary chiefs.
The talks were held after RCMP agreed to reduce their presence in the area and the company behind a contentious pipeline project said it would put its construction activities on hold. The talks are scheduled to resume Friday. Plans for the meeting had fallen apart on Wednesday, but were restored later that night.
On Thursday evening, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett declined to say what had been discussed in the talks, saying only she looked forward to getting back to them on Friday.
Ms. Bennett and her B.C. counterpart, Scott Fraser, attended the talks at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en’s building in Smithers.
They met with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to Coastal GasLink’s proposed $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline, which would ship natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the West Coast for LNG Canada, a project endorsed by both B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
After landing at the airport in Smithers, Ms. Bennett told reporters she looked forward to a fruitful meeting.
“Success is that we have a plan to continue to talk,” she said, adding: “Obviously it’s very important that we reaffirm our interest in talking to the Wet’suwet’en Nation on their issues of title and rights."
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs said in a statement on Thursday the meeting constitutes a “first step” while they noted invitations to both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Horgan were “declined at this time.”
The pipeline project has become a flashpoint for concerns related to Indigenous rights and climate change, while dividing opinions in Wet’suwet’en communities where some members say they want the jobs and income the project could provide. Rail blockades have clogged ports and disrupted supply chains, putting pressure on politicians to break the impasse. The number of arrests is climbed, with one tally – posted online Thursday by lawyer Irina Ceric – putting number of related arrests so far this month at 133.
Bonnie George, a Wet’suwet’en member who formerly worked on contract for Coastal GasLink, said there are deep divisions within the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
“You’ve seen how families are being divided and it shouldn’t be like that,” Ms. George said during a 15-minute, pro-pipeline rally near the entrance of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. “We need to work together as one, and that’s not happening.”
The Wet’suwet’en have sought to clarify their rights for decades, most notably through a court case that resulted in a landmark 1997 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, but the issues have yet to be fully resolved.
As the Smithers talks got under way, the Prime Minster announced a first ministers’ meeting next month and invited Indigenous leaders to attend.
You’ve seen how families are being divided and it shouldn’t be like that— Bonnie George
Leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Métis National Council are being invited to meet with first ministers in Ottawa on March 12. Mr. Trudeau and the provincial and territorial premiers will hold a first ministers’ meeting the next day.
The Prime Minister’s Office said the agenda will include ways to mitigate climate change while developing natural resources.
The tone for those meetings may depend on what happens this week in Smithers.
While pipeline proponent Coastal GasLink has reached agreements with all 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route, a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs – who claim jurisdiction over traditional territory through which the pipeline would pass – are adamantly opposed to the project.
The hereditary chiefs said they accepted the meeting after an agreement by the Mounties to stop patrols on a forest service road as well as to close a community outpost. On Thursday, the RCMP confirmed they would not patrol the road during the discussions.
Coastal GasLink said it has agreed to a two-day pause of construction activities in the Morice River area to “facilitate dialogue” between the hereditary chiefs and government officials.
In Victoria, Mr. Horgan said his government has been in touch with the company and with LNG Canada, providing assurances that the project will proceed.
“Permits have been issued, the construction is under way – both at Kitimat and along the corridor – and the project is proceeding," Mr. Horgan said.
“The message we’ve been sending is fairly clear. This is a project that has enormous benefits not just for the North, but all British Columbians – $23-billion in tax revenue, resources that we can put towards health care childcare, housing, any number of issues and we need to have private sector investment if we’re going to meet the public sector demand for services." Mr. Horgan said.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters Thursday he hopes the meeting would be a turning point that leads Mohawks in Quebec and Ontario to end their protests in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, which have included rail blockades.
“I think what’s important is to start this this dialogue – the one that we’ve been talking about for weeks – and we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Garneau said.
On Thursday morning, Tyendinaga Mohawk members protesting in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs made no attempts to stop trains from passing through the area near Belleville, Ont.
Ontario Provincial Police continue to monitor the protest. Camp B, which includes three military-style tents, has been the Mohawk base since their first blockade was dismantled by police Monday. The first blockade had choked off a key rail route to Eastern Canada.
With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria, Bill Curry in Ottawa and Kate McCullough in Belleville, Ont.