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A rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in Smithers, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2020.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs in British Columbia will sign a deal on Thursday to entrench their governance system, carving out only a limited role for elected chiefs and sending a strong message that resource development on their land will become more difficult.

Hereditary chiefs will hold a virtual meeting with the B.C. and federal governments to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlines an expedited process to implement rights and title over the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional territory, known as their “yin tah.”

Five elected chiefs of Wet’suwet’en band councils along Coastal GasLink’s pipeline route back the energy project and say they were shut out of the ratification process for the MOU.

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But hereditary chiefs say they have jurisdiction over their traditional territory outside of federal reserves, while asserting that elected chiefs only have authority within the boundaries of those reserves.

In February, protests and blockades spread across Canada in support of a group of eight hereditary house chiefs who are fighting Coastal GasLink’s plan to build a $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline. The 670-kilometre pipeline would run from northeast B.C. to the coast to supply LNG Canada’s $18-billion terminal under construction in Kitimat for exporting liquefied natural gas.

In late April, hereditary chiefs ratified the MOU, nearly two months after reaching the deal with the B.C. and federal governments on recognizing that Wet’suwet’en hereditary house groups hold sway over Indigenous rights and title.

The hereditary chiefs’ dispute with Coastal GasLink is not part of the MOU and remains unresolved.

Four of the elected chiefs are calling for the resignation of federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

An e-mailed message issued by Ms. Bennett’s office on Wednesday said the MOU “marks an important step in our work to rebuild our relationship with the Wet’suwet’en and towards affirming and implementing their rights and title.”

Her message added that once a final agreement is reached, it “would be taken back to all Wet’suwet’en people through a process that must clearly demonstrate the consent of the members of the nation.”

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Premier John Horgan acknowledged the division within the Wet’suwet’en Nation, but said B.C. is not setting a precedent of siding with hereditary chiefs over elected chiefs. “What we do know is the Wet’suwet’en have to figure this out themselves. How they govern themselves is up to them,” Mr. Horgan said in Victoria on Wednesday.

Elected leaders have slammed the two-page MOU and are planning a protest on Thursday in Smithers, B.C., outside the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society that is governed by hereditary chiefs. Elected chiefs say jurisdiction and authority over 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory should be held by the entire Wet’suwet’en membership and not controlled by hereditary chiefs.

But in a statement to The Globe and Mail, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs said there will be a series of negotiations with B.C. and Ottawa, using the MOU as a springboard to work out details over the next 12 months. “The commitment of Canada and British Columbia to affirm us and our title to the yin tah in the MOU will allow us to give our future generations that better future,” according to the statement.

In a six-page letter dated May 11 to elected band councils, hereditary chiefs say they are acting in the best interests of Wet’suwet’en members. “What the MOU does not do is alter elected band councils’ rights to do anything that they are currently authorized to do,” said the letter.

The plea by elected chiefs to have the hereditary chiefs, B.C. and Ottawa postpone Thursday’s virtual signing event has been rejected.

“It is clear that you are not seeking an extension in order to understand the MOU but rather to undermine the advances made thus far by the Wet’suwet’en in this first-ever initiative with Canada and British Columbia,” the hereditary chiefs said in their letter.

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B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said in an e-mailed message on Wednesday that “reunification within the Wet’suwet’en governance structure is one of the topics for discussion within the MOU,” notably engaging with elected leaders.

Hagwilget, a sixth Wet’suwet’en community that is located farther away from the pipeline corridor, has not thrown its support behind Coastal GasLink. Still, Hagwilget elected band chief Cynthia Joseph has expressed her concerns about the MOU.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation comprises five clans, under which there are 13 house groups, each with a hereditary head chief position (four are currently vacant). Eight hereditary house chiefs are opposed to Coastal GasLink while one house chief supports the project.

With a report from Ian Bailey

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