Skip to main content

Wet;suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs from left, Rob Alfred, John Ridsdale, centre and Antoinette Austin, at a rally in support of the Wet;suwet'en Nation in Smithers, B.C., in this file photo from Jan. 10, 2020.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs are citing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus for their decision to postpone a meeting in northern British Columbia that had been scheduled to discuss a tentative agreement over Indigenous governance.

John Ridsdale, a spokesman for a group of hereditary chiefs who are opposed to Coastal GasLink’s plan to build a $6.6-billion pipeline, said Wet’suwet’en members are being cautious in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. “We want to ensure that everyone is safe,” Mr. Ridsdale, who goes by the hereditary name Na’Moks, said in a text message to The Globe and Mail.

On March 1, hereditary leaders announced a proposed deal with the B.C. and federal governments to expedite negotiations to implement rights and title over the Wet’suwet’en people’s traditional territory. A resolution to the B.C. pipeline dispute, however, was not reached.

Coastal GasLink would transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to LNG Canada’s $18-billion export terminal under construction in Kitimat on the coast. Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada said on Tuesday that they are scaling back their construction activities and reducing the number of staff this week, taking precautionary measures owing to the COVID-19 outbreak.

LNG Canada, which recently employed more than 1,500 workers in Kitimat, said it expects to halve the number of staff later this week at its construction site. Coastal GasLink had 1,100 workers last month and already suspended some work in March to allow the ground to harden after the spring thaw, and will be further decreasing staffing to address COVID-19.

About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre route for the natural gas pipeline cross the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional territory. A meeting of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s five clans, to discuss the prospect of securing rights and title, had been expected by the end of March.

“It is good to hold off,” Mr. Ridsdale said. “Seems that there may be a bit of panic on COVID-19.”

Each of the clans held small gatherings during the first two weeks of March, but no date has been scheduled yet for the larger, all-clans meeting. “Always best to be safe than sorry,” said Mr. Ridsdale, who is head chief for Rafters on Beaver House.

Hereditary leaders say they have jurisdiction over their traditional territory, not elected band councils on federal reserves under the Indian Act that are pro-pipeline and have signed project agreements with Coastal GasLink.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation comprises five clans, under which there are the 13 house groups, each with a hereditary head chief position (four are currently vacant). Earlier this month, Herb Naziel became the first house chief to support the pipeline project, breaking ranks with eight men from other house groups who oppose it.

Last month, hereditary leaders asked the RCMP to remove trailer-like modules of office space used by police on duty along a logging road near Houston, B.C.

RCMP say the future role of the outpost, which police call the Community-Industry Safety Office, has yet to be decided. In the meantime, RCMP conducting patrols along the logging road are using the Houston detachment as their base.

Internal notes obtained by The Globe from a meeting between RCMP officials and hereditary chiefs in Smithers on Jan. 10, 2019, show that the chiefs were uncomfortable with what would be the creation, days after the meeting, of the RCMP outpost.

Three days before the meeting, RCMP arrested 14 anti-pipeline opponents at a police checkpoint along the logging road, which leads to a construction site for Coastal GasLink workers preparing to build a section of the natural gas pipeline.

Chief Superintendent Dave Attfield, the RCMP’s commander overseeing last year’s enforcement of a court injunction that led to the 14 arrests, attended the meeting along with Superintendent John Brewer.

RCMP view the outpost as a deterrent against “problem people,” said the notes taken during the meeting by Judy Walton, executive secretary of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which is governed by hereditary chiefs.

One of the house chiefs in attendance, Jeff Brown, who goes by the hereditary name Madeek, said the arrests had a major emotional impact on Wet’suwet’en members and their supporters. “Many are traumatized,” Mr. Brown said, according to the notes that were filed in a court case related to Coastal GasLink.