Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs and senior government officials have resumed talks in Smithers, B.C., in an effort to resolve a dispute that has triggered protests and blockades across Canada.
“I think that right now, the way it’s going, we can change relationships between Indigenous people, provincially and federally, right across Canada,” said John Ridsdale, head chief of Rafters on Beaver House, which is one of 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary house groups. “If we stay on the track that we were on in the past, we weren’t being heard.”
Protests and blockades have spread over the past three weeks across the country in solidarity with a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink’s plan to build a $6.6-billion pipeline in northern British Columbia.
“It didn’t have to get to this point,” Mr. Ridsdale, who goes by the hereditary name Na’Moks, told reporters on Saturday in Smithers. “We don’t need to go backwards. This is called futuristic thinking, and Canada should jump on board with the Indigenous people.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, arrived in Smithers on Thursday for what had been scheduled for two days of meetings with hereditary chiefs.
The two cabinet ministers said on Saturday that they remain cautiously optimistic about the talks focused on Wet’suwet’en rights and title to their unceded traditional territory.
“It’s the third day of talks, which wasn’t the original plan,” Mr. Fraser said. “There was work going on till the wee hours this morning and we’re all still here. We’re working with respect. It’s a good sign but these are difficult and challenging issues.”
Ms. Bennett said the issues are not only complex but also reflect a history of “broken promises and cynicism that is completely understandable” among Indigenous people.
“We want to be able to change the way, and the kind of partnership that we require nation to nation,” she said. “That’s what we have to disentangle and make clear.”
Asked whether the discussions could be adjourned and resume within weeks, Ms. Bennett said issues related to unresolved land claims are “really important and very complex, and we’re committed to getting the work done.”
Coastal GasLink began work in early 2019 on constructing a pipeline that would transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the West Coast, where LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia. The B.C. and federal governments back the LNG terminal and natural gas pipeline.
Coastal GasLink has reached project agreements with 20 elected First Nation councils, including five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils along the pipeline route.
But the group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs has led a vocal campaign against the pipeline’s construction, saying hereditary leaders, not elected band councillors, have jurisdiction over their traditional territory located outside of federal reserves.
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross Wet’suwet’en territory.
Tensions have been rising between Coastal GasLink and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs since Dec. 31, when a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction against opponents of the project who had set up barricades along a logging road near Houston, B.C.
The Wet’suwet’en Nation comprises five clans, under which there are 13 house groups, each with a hereditary head chief position (four are currently vacant).
There are no “clan chiefs,” but eight hereditary house chiefs spanning the five clans are opposed to Coastal GasLink: Mr. Ridsdale, Warner William, Ron Mitchell, Alphonse Gagnon, Warner Naziel, Frank Alec, Fred Tom and Jeff Brown.
The eight men served what they describe as an eviction notice in early 2020 under Wet’suwet’en law to Coastal GasLink.
One house chief, Herb Naziel, has taken a neutral position on the pipeline project.
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