B.C. Premier John Horgan says a weekend deal between Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments will not affect the construction of the natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia that sparked blockades and protests across Canada.
“There’s a difference of opinion around the Coastal GasLink project, but the permits are in place, it’s approved, it’s under way," Mr. Horgan told the B.C. Legislature on Monday. “I made that clear.”
The company building the pipeline returned to Wet’suwet’en territory on Monday, as did the RCMP, raising concerns about how protesters who have blocked railway tracks, city streets and politicians’ offices in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs would react.
No details have been released about the deal to implement Indigenous rights and title in the territory through which the contested pipeline would run. After three days of talks that ended Saturday, representatives of the hereditary chiefs and the Indigenous relations ministers for Canada and British Columbia released a joint statement saying the parties had reached an arrangement to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title, pending ratification by Wet’suwet’en clan members.
Mr. Horgan said the agreement is confined to questions of rights and title – and who holds those rights on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en.
“Where we want to be … is forward-looking. How do we find a way forward so that we let Indigenous people determine who represents them, within that context, so that investment has a clear path, so that citizens have a clear path and political parties have a clear path as well," he added.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline is opposed by some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, but backed by the federal and B.C. governments. Twenty elected band councils along the pipeline route have signed benefit agreements to work with the company. The conflict has triggered demonstrations that have resulted in port backlogs and snarled commuter traffic, and put a spotlight on how governments oversee resource development.
In Question Period, Liberal MLA Mike de Jong asked with whom the government had negotiated and whether leaders at the table represented Wet’suwet’en people.
In response, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said the ratification process would give everyone a voice.
In a statement Monday, Maureen Luggi, elected chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, said the federal and provincial governments “ignored us in these important negotiations” and said all Wet’suwet’en leaders need to work together.
Mr. Fraser called on those who have been protesting in support of the hereditary chiefs to allow time for Wet’suwet’en leaders and members to communicate.
“I ask people who are protesting, who care about rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en people, to give us time to address those things,” Mr. Fraser said.
There have been protests across the country since early February, when the RCMP arrested 28 people along a B.C. logging road while enforcing a court order sought by Coastal GasLink to gain access to pipeline work sites.
Two rail blockades in place in Quebec for weeks remained intact Monday. In Kahnawake, the Mohawk community planned a meeting Monday night to discuss next steps for the blockade on the lightly used Canadian Pacific Railway line, which also serves a commuter train.
Kenneth Deer, secretary of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake who has acted as a spokesman for the protesters, said community members will have to reach a consensus before the blockade comes down.
In Listuguj in eastern Quebec, a Mi’kmaq blockade of a small regional railway allowed two trains through on Friday before the blockade was restored.
Dan George, chief of B.C’s Burns Lake Band, on Monday said he hoped a vote would take place quickly and that all Wet’suwet’en members, including those who may be living off-reserve, would have an opportunity to take part. Burns Lake has signed an agreement with Coastal GasLink.
“We need a vote from all of our Wet’suwet’en members throughout the country – because half of our members live off-reserve ... we can’t leave anybody out,” Mr. George said.
Talks between hereditary chiefs and the B.C. and federal governments began last Thursday after the RCMP said it would stop patrols on the logging road and Coastal GasLink agreed to put construction on hold while talks were under way. The hereditary chiefs asked for those conditions before talks began.
B.C.’s liaison with the hereditary chiefs, Nathan Cullen, said Monday the proposed agreement deals exclusively with the issue of rights and title, and the pipeline “remains a point of conflict.”
Mr. Cullen said he didn’t know how supporters across the country would respond to pipeline work resuming.
“We are working hard to keep what happens out on the territory respectful and calm because it is important to the chiefs to have as much of that as possible in order to have a good conversation and deliberation within the nation. They’re under a lot of pressure," Mr. Cullen said.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said Monday she is hopeful the proposed agreement will prevent similar conflicts in the future.
“This is a recognition of rights and title that will prevent this kind of uncertainty for all future projects,” she said.
“We want to make sure that in all of its complexity that we have the ability to get it right this time, such that this will never happen again.”
Ms. Bennett also said B.C. and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have acknowledged there are differences over the pipeline and they will be for the province, the company and the nation to discuss.
Ms. Bennett’s office confirmed the proposed agreement will not be released, noting it was agreed the first people to see it should be the Wet’suwet’en clans.
Sarah Plank, the director of communications with the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations, said Monday it is appropriate that the proposed arrangement be reviewed by the Wet’suwet’en members first.
“If it is endorsed, it will be made public,” she said.
With a report from Les Perreaux