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Supporters of the Unist'ot'en blockade set up a small camp at Mile Marker 27 where the RCMP have blocked further access near Houston, B.C., January 8, 2019.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Protests in B.C. over the Coastal GasLink pipeline have highlighted the differences – and potential conflicts – between elected band councils and hereditary leaders over resource development and land use.

On the elected side, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is one of 20 B.C. First Nations that have signed a project agreement with Coastal GasLink, a TransCanada Corp. subsidiary that wants to build a natural gas pipeline across northern B.C. to feed a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Kitimat.

According to the B.C. government, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation (formerly known as Broman Lake) has a population of 256 and is between Burns Lake and Houston. A federal government profile lists the group as having 10 reserves, ranging from 16 to 97.9 hectares.

But the Wet’suwet’en Nation also refers to the Indigenous people who have lived in northern B.C. for thousands of years, claim traditional territory comprising some 22,000 square kilometres and are governed through a matrilineal system of houses and clans.

That hereditary system and its hereditary leaders are at the heart of current protests.

What it is

The Wet’suwet’en are divided into clans and houses. As described in the court case known as Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, every person born of a Wet’suwet’en woman is automatically a member of his or her mother’s house and clan. Each house has one or more hereditary chiefs.

Why it matters

Most of B.C. was not ceded through a treaty process and is subject to overlapping land claims. In the Delgamuukw case, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claimed separate portions of 58,000 square kilometers of B.C.

That case, which involved months of testimony and extensive oral history, wound up in the Supreme Court of Canada, which in 1997 confirmed Indigenous peoples have valid claims to ancestral lands they never ceded by treaty.

But the court battle did not resolve their specific title claim, and the Gitxsan and Wet’suswet’en Nations, which had already spent millions in legal fees, did not mount another case.

Before police actions this week, the RCMP referred to that court case, noting that a new trial had never been held and that aboriginal title has not been determined.

By Monday, the RCMP was distancing itself from the statement about title, saying it was “inappropriate” for the RCMP to weigh in on discussions between governments and Indigenous communities.

Peter Grant, a Vancouver lawyer who represented the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en in Delgamuukw, said on Tuesday that court cases since then have highlighted the importance of hereditary systems of government in the Pacific Northwest - and that Coastal GasLink appears to have fallen short in negotiations with hereditary leaders.

“I think it is very tragic that a company that says it wants to recognize and work with Indigenous groups is so willfully blind to ... who they should have worked with in the case of the Wet’suwet’en,” Mr. Grant said on Tuesday.

Coastal GasLink, however, says it has done much to negotiate with Indigenous people along the pipeline route, including hereditary chiefs.

“To say that Coastal GasLink has not engaged with hereditary chiefs is simply untrue,” the company said on Jan. 7 on its website, citing more than 100 in-person meetings and 1,000-plus calls and e-mails over the past five years “with hereditary groups.”

Who takes precedence?

B.C. has 203 First Nations with widely varying systems of governance and hereditary leadership. In some communities, elected chiefs and councils have become the main players in negotiations on land use and economic development, said Ellis Ross, Liberal MLA and former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation on the coast and opposition critic for LNG.

(The Haisla also have a project agreement with Coastal GasLink.)

Many Indigenous communities around the province are grappling with conflicts between hereditary and elected leaders, Mr. Ross said.

But people who support the pipeline tend not to be as vocal as the protesters, he said.

“My frustration is that community members who ask for help, who ask for assistance, who ask for a job, do not stand up and say, ‘Yes, I will go with the leadership that presents the best future for me and my children.’”