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B.C. Premier John Horgan, seen here on Jan. 13, 2020, told reporters Monday that he does not believe the Wet’suwet’en opponents should have the power to veto the project.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier John Horgan has brushed aside mounting criticism from human-rights organizations of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, saying the infrastructure that is vital to securing a liquefied natural gas industry in British Columbia will be built.

The project is at the centre of a long-running conflict that has divided Indigenous communities. While Coastal GasLink has signed deals with the elected representatives of First Nations all along the 670-kilometre route, a group led by hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is seeking to block construction of the pipeline project within their traditional territories.

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and B.C.'s independent Human Rights Commission say the province and Canada must halt construction until free, prior and informed consent is obtained from all Indigenous peoples affected by the projects. Amnesty International also flagged the project warning against overriding the authority of Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about the use of their traditional lands.

Mr. Horgan told reporters Monday that he does not believe the Wet’suwet’en opponents should have the power to veto the project.

“The courts have confirmed that this project can proceed, and it will proceed,” he said. “The rule of law must prevail.” A B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction on Dec. 31 to stop Wet’suwet’en members and anti-pipeline supporters from blocking access to work camps. On Monday, the RCMP set up a checkpoint to limit access to the protest site, as a first step toward enforcing the injunction. In a statement, the RCMP said talks with the protest leaders are continuing.

The Premier discussed the project with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday. Both levels of government have approved the planned $40-billion LNG Canada project, which will require the Coastal GasLink pipeline for supply.

Almost a third of the proposed pipeline route crosses the territory to which the Wet’suwet’en maintain aboriginal rights and title.

Karla Tait, director of programming at the Unist’ot’en healing lodge, near the site of the protest, and a spokeswoman for some of the protesters, said Canada and B.C. are obliged to heed the demands of CERD.

“The Coastal Gaslink project was never granted free, prior, informed consent by the rightful authorities of the 22,000 square kilometres of Wet’suwet’en territory. Canada’s federal, provincial and legal enforcement bodies should be well aware that the authorities of unceded Wet’suwet’en land are our hereditary chiefs,” she said in a written statement.

Under Canadian law, the elected chiefs have authority over the reserves created by the Crown. But authority over the 22,000 square kilometres of traditional Wet’suwet’en territory involves a matrilineal system of 13 unique houses, five clans and 38 house territories.

The Coastal GasLink project is just one of three industrial projects that CERD wants Canada to halt until consent is obtained from all Indigenous peoples affected. All three – including the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Site C dam – have been federally approved and are under construction in B.C.

In a statement, the UN committee said it “calls upon the state party to immediately halt the construction and suspend all permits and approvals for the construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in the traditional and unceded lands and territories of the Wet’suwet’en people, until they grant their free, prior and informed consent, following the full and adequate discharge of the duty to consult.”

B.C.'s Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, issued a statement on Friday calling on both Canada and British Columbia to live up to their commitments to uphold an international declaration on Indigenous rights.

“B.C. and Canada have – or plan to – legislate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As such, we have obligations to ensure free, prior, and informed consent exists for all impacted Indigenous groups before projects impact lands,” she wrote in her statement.

British Columbia enacted a law to enshrine UNDRIP last fall, but the law does not define consent and does not confer veto power on Indigenous communities. The details of implementation are expected to take years to develop. Mr. Horgan said on Monday the law is “forward-looking” and cannot be applied to existing projects.

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