Human-rights agencies that have waded into the Coastal Gaslink conflict in northern British Columbia have failed to acknowledge broad support for the project by First Nations along the pipeline route, Indigenous leaders say.
The pipeline has been approved by 20 First Nations in northern British Columbia, including elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the B.C. and federal governments.
But a group led by Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders is seeking to block construction of the pipeline project within their traditional territories. That conflict prompted criticism in recent months from Amnesty International, B.C.'s Human Rights Commission and the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), who say all Indigenous peoples affected by the project should give free, prior and informed consent before it can proceed.
The proposed pipeline, a key piece of infrastructure for the $40-billion LNG Canada project that will export Canadian natural gas to Asian markets, has exposed deep divisions between hereditary chiefs and the elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en.
“It is disheartening to see that the input from 20 First Nations, who participated extensively during five years of consultation on the pipeline, and have successfully negotiated agreements with Coastal GasLink, is so easily dismissed by the B.C. Human Rights Commission,” Karen Ogen-Toews, chief executive officer of the First Nations LNG Alliance, wrote recently in an open letter. The organization issued a similar letter directed at the UN committee.
Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender maintained in a statement that all affected Indigenous rights-holding groups are entitled to free, prior and informed consent. She added that her primary concern is about the potential for violence as RCMP seeks to enforce a court injunction to end a blockade by pipeline opponents.
“What is not an acceptable solution is that we should find ourselves in the midst of a militarized police action that threatens the lives and safety of demonstrators," Ms. Govender said. "This is a crisis moment for Canada, where our commitment to reconciliation and human rights are being tested.”
On Monday, Premier John Horgan offered to send his Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser, to meet with the hereditary chiefs. But in a letter to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the Premier noted: “Our government has no authority to vary that injunction, nor to direct the RCMP in the fulfillment of its responsibilities.”
Eight hereditary chiefs who oppose the project maintain the elected chiefs control only the small portion of lands that are on reserve, while they represent the Wet’suwet’en across the broad expanse of their traditional territories.
The LNG Canada export facility is being built in Kitimat, which is in the riding of B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, who previously was elected chief councillor for the Haisla Nation. Mr. Ross has advocated for the LNG industry as a means to lift Indigenous communities out of poverty. In an interview on Monday, he lashed out at the human-rights watchdogs that have commented on the project.
“It’s irresponsible not to review the record of consultation and accommodation on the LNG pipeline, and that means going in and reviewing the work done by elected chiefs and councils over the last six years," Mr. Ross said. "The aboriginal people themselves elected their leaders to represent them on these major projects. What I see right now is this campaign to de-legitimize democratically elected leaders in B.C. And it’s shameful.”
Gay McDougall, a U.S. lawyer who is a vice-chair of the UN committee, said in an interview that she travelled to Vancouver last year to speak with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs about the project. Ms. McDougall declined to say whether the committee took into account the views of Indigenous communities that support the project. “You’re asking me an unfair question,” she said. “I’m not in a position of deciding that. It’s decided internally by the union of Indigenous chiefs, so we have to deal on that level.”
Cheryl Casimer, who serves on the political executive of the First Nations Summit, said the conflict needs to be resolved by the two arms of the Wet’suwet’en leadership.
“The solution can only come from within the nation, and that’s between the hereditary and the elected systems," she said. "It’s really important and it’s a key step in terms of finding a solution on this complex situation, to have the two groups come together and have that much-needed conversation.”
With a report from James Keller in Calgary