A Wet’suwet’en Nation matriarch who supports Coastal GasLink’s B.C. pipeline project says the Indigenous group’s hereditary governance system needs to incorporate the views of elected band councils.
“We are ready for a system of governance that is inclusive,” Theresa Tait Day said on Tuesday during a webcast from a House of Commons committee in Ottawa.
Coastal GasLink has signed project agreements with 20 elected First Nation councils, including five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils, along the pipeline route. But a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposes the $6.6-billion pipeline project, saying they have jurisdiction over their unceded traditional territory, not elected band councils on federal reserves under the Indian Act.
On March 1, hereditary leaders announced a tentative agreement with the federal and B.C. governments to expedite negotiations to implement rights and title for the Wet’suwet’en Nation. A resolution to the pipeline dispute, however, was not reached.
“Canada and British Columbia legitimize a group of bullies,” Ms. Tait Day said. “The Indian Act system must be reformed, but that does not invalidate the role of the elected councils. While imperfect, they continue to speak for the people until a better model is implemented.”
She said the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary governance system needs to accommodate a joint decision-making model, and she outlined how the process should work in practice. “Hereditary chiefs in our communities do not rule alone. They make decisions collectively,” she said. “An effort is made to work toward consensus. At the end of the process, community and band-elected chiefs inform the hereditary chiefs of their community’s message.”
The Wet’suwet’en Nation comprises five hereditary clans, under which there are 13 house groups, each with a head chief position (four are currently vacant). On Sunday, Herb Naziel became the first house chief to support the pipeline project, breaking ranks with eight men from other house groups who oppose it.
“Hereditary chiefs are representative decision-makers. They are not autocrats,” Ms. Tait Day said. “The bands and the community have been left out.”
Since Feb. 6, protests have spread across Canada in solidarity with the group of eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs fighting Coastal GasLink’s plan.
“These chiefs’ voices have been amplified by the skills and resources of outside environmental activists, who say they support Wet’suwet’en but whose primary interest is to stop the pipeline,” Ms. Tait Day said.
Ms. Tait Day, Gloria George and Darlene Glaim back the pipeline project and helped form the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition in 2015, with a goal of persuading hereditary leaders to endorse Coastal GasLink. The coalition received seed money from Coastal GasLink and the then-BC Liberal government.
Over the past four years, the three Wet’suwet’en women have been stripped of their hereditary titles, although they continue to personally use them.
Ms. Tait Day met on Tuesday night with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett. “This is a nation-building exercise," Ms. Tait Day said in an interview after the meeting. “I think there is a path forward for joint decision-making, developed by the Wet’suwet’en people.”
Ms. Tait Day said she disagrees with hereditary chiefs who unfairly removed her subchief name, Wi’haliy’te, under House Beside the Fire. Frank Alec replaced Ms. Glaim last year as Woos, head chief of Grizzly House, while Warner Naziel replaced Ms. George in 2016 as Smogelgem, head chief of Sun House.
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s traditional territory.
During the Commons committee on Tuesday, Ms. Bennett was asked by Conservative critic Jamie Schmale whether she met with elected chiefs during recent discussions in Smithers, B.C.
Ms. Bennett said she did not meet with the elected chiefs, adding that some matriarchs did attend meetings.
She said the proposed agreement on rights and title is being taken back to the clans and houses for review.
Ms. Bennett said she is also “more than happy” to meet with the elected First Nation chiefs at any time.
She said that protests have been in support of the hereditary leaders who oppose the pipeline, and the recent talks focused on resolving complex matters of Indigenous governance.
“It was indeed the hereditary chiefs that had mounted the support coast-to-coast-to-coast, and therefore the resolution was going to come with the hereditary chiefs at the beginning, and then we will meet with the elected chiefs,” she said.
Ms. Bennett said Coastal GasLink is a B.C. project that involves provincial regulatory processes and permits.
“My job is to make sure that the [Wet’suwet’en] Nation comes together and heals as a whole, and that concerns of the hereditary chiefs needed to be heard,” she said.
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