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British Columbia Western newsletter: Consent, consensus and the complicated business of Indigenous land

Hello. Wendy Cox, B.C. bureau chief here.

The people barring access to a remote forest site where TransCanada Corp. plans to build a natural gas pipeline are Unist’ot’en. They are affiliated with Dark House, one of three houses of the Big Frog Clan. The Big Frog Clan, in turn, is one of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

The Unist’ot’en people living on the site describe themselves as the toughest of the nation, members of an original clan that occupied the most treacherous of the Wet’suwet’en’s vast territory.

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Each Wet’suwet’en clan is governed by a hereditary chief, as is each house. There are several so-called wing chiefs as part of the organizational structure. The territories of each clan are clearly defined, but sometimes not contiguous.

The clan chiefs have opposed the natural gas pipeline.

The Wet’suwet’en are also governed by five elected band chiefs. Each of those chiefs have supported the pipeline, having signed agreements that compel the resource company to pay them millions in benefits.

It’s complicated, to be sure, as Wendy Stueck explained earlier this week.

This week’s dispute has revealed in especially vivid terms just how complicated the issues are surrounding Indigenous title and consultation, resource development, environmental protection and economic advancement. The conflict has also underscored the need to embrace the complicated for anyone wanting to understand the political, legal and historical challenges of coming to consensus on resource projects.

The Unist’ot’en healing lodge has been on the territory where the gas pipeline is scheduled to be built since 2010. Its occupants say they are not blockading the site: they say they are simply occupying land that has been theirs for millenia. But an injunction ordering them to make way for preconstruction work for the pipeline issued by a judge last December put the Unist’ot’en on alert. The RCMP gave notice earlier this week that police would enforce the injunction.

Protests were quickly organized across the country as word spread on social media. Many of the activists short-handed the dispute into one of Indigenous peoples versus a resource company. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was confronted. Premier John Horgan defended the pipeline and the process leading up to it: the gas pipeline is crucial to the development of the much larger LNG Canada project and is a key economic development plank for the NDP.

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Our job was to offer readers a much deeper look at the intricacies. Our cover story showed that while the Unist’ot’en are adamantly opposed to the pipeline for the threat it poses to their environment, other Indigenous groups along the pipeline regard it as a much needed opportunity to provide jobs and economic benefits.

As Gary Mason writes in his opinion piece this weekend, the conflict has left some Indigenous leaders disquieted about the divisions within their communities and the struggle to reach consensus.

“We want our people out of poverty,” said Haisla Chief Crystal Smith, one of several Indigenous chiefs who have supported the pipeline. “We are tired of managing poverty.”

Equally impassioned is Molly Wickham, who was among the 14 people arrested Monday after RCMP moved in on a checkpoint along the road towards the main camp.

“Seeing people laying on the ground, or being dragged away – it was a lot,” Ms. Wickham recalled in an interview on Friday.

Ms. Wickham insisted the pipeline will “absolutely not” be built.

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“This is far from over,” she said.

She is right.

While an agreement was eventually reached with those occupying the Unist’ot’en camp, allowing access to the site for workers who in turn agreed not to disturb those living there, the court injunction ordering that access expires May 31.

Before then and after, Canadian policy makers, Indigenous groups and resource companies will continue to grapple with how to reach consensus and consent in some of the most difficult issues facing the country.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West:

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BIG HORN COUNTRY: The Alberta government’s plan to create a new provincial park on the edge of the Rocky Mountains has become a flash point in a debate about who has the right to use the back country and the broader debate about how the environment in the oil-rich province should be managed. Environment reporter Jeff Lewis explores where the battle lines have been drawn between conservationists who say the park designation is needed to protect a delicate ecosystem, and local residents who fear they would face increased restrictions on fishing, using their ATVs, and other outdoor activities.

HUMBOLDT BRONCOS: The families of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash say they’re relieved the transport-truck driver has pleaded guilty to all charges, sparking them a painful trial. Jaskirat Sidhu’s guilty plea sets up an emotional sentencing hearing that begins Jan. 28, when families and survivors will have the chance to give victim-impact statements.

TRANS MOUNTAIN PIPELINE: The National Energy Board has handed over a series of recommendations to the federal government for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which remains stalled following a court decision last year. The NEB, which does not say whether or not the pipeline should be built, is urging the federal government to toughen marine monitoring and protection standards, including potential limits on the whale-watching industry.

MONEY LAUNDERING: B.C.'s Attorney-General says a lack of federal resources for investigating money-laundering is masking the full extent of the problem as he pushes for Ottawa and the RCMP to allocate more resources to crack down on financial crime in the province. Reporter Mike Hager talked to Mr. Eby, who criticized the federal government in response to allegations linked to a money laundering case that fell apart under mysterious circumstances. Civil forfeiture documents allege the couple at the heart of that case had been funnelling $220-million a year through a Richmond, B.C., business.

BURNABY BY-ELECTION: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will finally get a chance to run in a federal by-election now that the Prime Minister has called votes in three ridings including Burnaby South. Mr. Singh, who was elected leader in 2017 but has been without a seat in Parliament, had been pressuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call a by-election and accused Mr. Trudeau of delaying the vote for political gain. Burnaby South was held by Kennedy Stewart of the NDP before his successful bid to become mayor of Vancouver.

THE PRO-PIPELINE MOVEMENT: Alberta’s Premier is urging the pro-pipeline movement in her province to guard against extremists and stay on topic, amid concerns that the presence of so-called yellow vest activists could distract from the message. Premier Rachel Notley says she welcomes the rallies, including a truck convoy to Ottawa planned for next month, but she says extreme views or pre-occupation with side issues will distract from the cause. The United Conservative Party’s Jason Kenney has also raised concerns about some people within the movement veering off topic.

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VANCOUVER ART GALLERY: The hope for a new – and significantly larger – Vancouver Art Gallery remains uncertain as the gallery struggles to find private funding despite two extensions. Arts correspondent Marsha Lederman explains that the City of Vancouver has ordered the gallery to meet certain conditions by Dec. 31, 2019, including raising $150-million in private-sector funding. The VAG has so far only raised about $45-million in private money.

FOOD: If you’re in Vancouver and looking for great Indian food options beyond the usual butter, tandoori and tikka chicken from Punjab, restaurant reviewer Alexandra Gill wants to introduce you to Mumbai Local, a new spot along Davie Street. Read her four-star review.

Opinion:

Adrienne Tanner on the opioid crisis: “While abstinence is a laudable goal, the first and most important step when a drug supply is poisoned must be to stop the deaths. It takes most people multiple bouts of treatment to successfully wean themselves off drugs. And there are many who never do. With a free, safe supply of drugs, governments can reduce crime and most importantly save lives.”

Margaret Wente on the carbon tax fight: “In other words, carbon taxes can’t save the planet. Despite what politicians tell you, they basically amount to useless virtue-signalling. But Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Notley and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna aren’t going to tell you this because they want you to believe they have a plan and that the plan will work.”

Gary Mason on the declining housing markets: “The fact is, home prices in markets such as Toronto, and especially Vancouver, became alienated from local incomes long ago. The disparity has become so great as to be laughable. Any notion that the price slide we are seeing has suddenly made homes in these markets affordable is a joke.”

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