A Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief who helped translate a seminal Supreme Court decision that laid the foundation for greater control for Indigenous communities over their land says she opposes the blockades that have been roiling the country.
Rita George also said Thursday that she and other matriarchs have been feeling sick about the conflict and how it has split their community. She said the opposing hereditary chiefs and some of the people around them – including outside activists who have embedded themselves in the protest camp – have disrespected ancient feast-house traditions of how to treat one another.
Ms. George said it caused her great pain to have to exercise her leadership by speaking out against some of her own and particularly those outsiders who have turned her northern British Columbia community into a battleground over issues of climate change policy, resource extraction and reconciliation.
“I want the world to know why I am stepping forward as a matriarch,” the trim, curly-haired 80-year-old said in an emotional interview at the Pleasant Valley Cafe in Houston, B.C. “The world thinks the matriarchs are behind all the protests going on and that’s not true. None of the matriarchs were contacted.”
A group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline have been mounting a years-long campaign to have the project halted. The pipeline is needed to feed natural gas to an eventual LNG facility, an $18-billion export terminal slated for Kitimat that carries the economic hope of the region.
Leaders of the 20 elected bands along the pipeline route have endorsed the project, but eight hereditary house chiefs representing the five Wet’suwet’en clans are firmly opposed and have been maintaining a protest camp at the construction site. After a judge ordered the area to be cleared for workers last December, the RCMP moved in, prompting a cascade of solidarity protests across the country, blockading rail lines and snarling commuter traffic.
Ms. George belongs to the elected Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. She is both a band member and part of the hereditary system.
“There is no love, there is no respect. That’s not the way of our ancestors,” Ms. George said, saying she is speaking on behalf of the matriarchs and elders of her community. “If I keep quiet, if I don’t come forward to address our point of view, it will look like we are supporters. We are not.”
Ms. George says she was a young woman when her Wet’suwet’en community selected her for a leadership role that she knew she would spend a lifetime fulfilling.
A grandmother of 10 who speaks Witsuwit’en, Ms. George was once entrusted by her community to help translate the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in Delgamuukw. That case established for the first time that aboriginal title had not been extinguished. The case was fought by the Wet’suwet’en and neighbouring Gitxsan.
Ms. George said the current influx of outside protesters who are pursuing their own policy goals has put a damper on the exchange of opinions inside the community. Instead, she said even the elders are afraid to voice their concerns.
“I want the world to know what’s been happening to us. We are being bullied, it’s so shameful, so hurtful. We are being humiliated."
Ms. George said she has spent several sleepless nights preparing to speak out against what is happening in her community. She said she has been worried about causing more pain, but she said it is also important that the truth be told.
She said she wants her community to have the time and quiet to discuss these important issues among themselves in an atmosphere of peace and respect. She decried the inability of those who oppose the pipeline to listen to community members who may disagree with them.
“I have had my name, The Bear That Sleeps All Winter Long, since 1964,” Ms. George said, referring to the feast house ceremony that gave her a name, Gulaxkan, and with it, endowed her with a leadership role.
“It hurts me to see them [pipeline opponents] wearing regalia in the snow and mud and marching in the cities. That’s not right. That’s affecting all of us. Our ancestors would say they are dirtying the names and the regalia."