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Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs say pipelines cannot be built through their territory without their consent. Their governance system is complex and rooted in cultural traditions. But there are disagreements over how it works and who benefits

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Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, from left, Rob Alfred, John Ridsdale (Na'Moks) and Antoinette Austin, rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in Smithers, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2020.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

In late 2019, a short video appeared online, one of many that have helped bring a B.C. pipeline dispute to international attention.

In the video, Warner Naziel – identified as a Wet’suwet’en Nation chief with the hereditary name of Smogelgem – is shown building a cabin near what is now known as Parrott Lake. It’s about a two-hour drive from a bridge in Northern British Columbia, where people opposed to the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project had blocked a logging road, citing Wet’suwet’en law.

Mr. Naziel, who is among the hereditary chiefs opposing the pipeline’s construction, said he and others were in the process of reoccupying a former Wet’suwet’en village site and invited supporters to join them.

Wet’suwet’en chiefs vs. RCMP: A Globe guide to the dispute over B.C.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline

For Candice George, those remarks stung. In a Facebook post in January, Ms. George said the name Smogelgem rightfully belongs to her great-aunt, Gloria George, and that her family has ties to the area shown in the video. “They broke our Wet’suwet’en laws,” she said. “I have no respect for those who bully and steal names to gain power and territory. Gloria George is the true matriarch of the Sun House. She is Smogelgem because she is actually born to the hereditary lineage.”

Mr. Naziel, however, has said in court documents that Gloria George didn’t follow Wet’suwet’en law in taking the Smogelgem name, while he did.

The dispute over the Smogelgem name is one thread of a broader controversy that involves pipeline construction, Indigenous rights and the B.C. and federal governments. While the pipeline is the symbol of the controversy, the dispute has raised broader issues, including questions related to Indigenous governance. In pursuing its natural gas pipeline, Coastal GasLink has reached benefit agreements with all 20 elected band councils along the route – including five elected Wet’suwet’en councils representing about 2,800 people. Those councils were created under the Indian Act and, in general, have authority over federal reserves: small land parcels set aside under the act.

While the governing principles of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and its hereditary chiefs are anchored in their own cultural traditions and recognized in major court cases, there are disagreements over how those systems work in practice. The Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs, and their supporters, maintain they have jurisdiction and authority over 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory: a roughly triangular patch criss-crossed by salmon-bearing rivers that sits in the middle of the pipeline’s path. The territory has never been ceded and is not subject to a treaty.

On Monday, RCMP arrested seven people, including Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chief Freda Huson, near the Morice River Bridge in Northern British Columbia. The arrests, capping several days of police enforcement of a B.C. court injunction, triggered a new round of protests across the country. Coastal GasLink sought the court order to gain access to a construction site, Camp 9A, and the final sections of its pipeline route, which had been blocked by a barricade on the bridge.

The arrests were made near the Unist’ot’en camp, which is at the 66-kilometre mark of a B.C. logging road and has become the physical and symbolic focal point for the anti-pipeline campaign.

In an attempt to understand the hereditary system, The Globe and Mail spoke with hereditary leaders and others, while reviewing a wide range of court filings and affidavits. Those records show a complex history that includes overlapping territories with neighbouring nations, traditions that endured through smallpox, legal bans and dislocation, and a consistent theme: Leaders are linked to the land.

Beyond bloodlines

A hereditary chief is not necessarily born into his or her role.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation is organized into five hereditary clans and 13 houses, or subgroups. Each of those subgroups has the position of house chief, also known as head chief, and secondary leaders known as wing chiefs.

While the descendants of head chiefs stand to inherit names, the nomination of someone as an heir is “based on the deportment and merit of the adult candidates, whether or not they have previously held a name,” anthropologist Antonia Mills said in a 2019 affidavit submitted in court proceedings related to the Coastal GasLink project.

“There is a misunderstanding about heredity, as though it is some kind of aristocracy, like a British model,” said John Borrows, a professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria.

“Because within these systems, as I understand them, you have to prove yourself worthy, there is not just an automatic assumption of a title or right or land relationship – there’s a lot you have to do in the process,” said Prof. Borrows, who is Anishinaabe/Ojibwa.

Each chief is responsible for the lands and resources within her or his territory.

Rules and rituals have been passed down through songs, stories and dances.

Prior to colonization, there would have been well-understood mechanisms to resolve disputes such as the proposed pipeline, which crosses multiple house territories and has potential impact on fish, game and forests.

Over time, those mechanisms weakened, under assault from a government-imposed band and council system to which industry and government gravitated, Prof. Borrows said.

With title unresolved, hereditary chiefs have tried to engage with the federal and B.C. governments on the pipeline issue.

“We have to deal with the people who make decisions, and that means the federal and provincial governments,” Jeff Brown, who goes by Madeek as house chief of Where It Lies Blocking The Trail, said in an interview.

“They’re both in cahoots, so we have to talk to both.”

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From left, Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary house chiefs Warner Naziel (Smogelgem), Warner William (Knedebeas), Jeff Brown (Madeek), Ron Mitchell (Hagwilnegh) and John Ridsdale (Na’Moks) appear following their meeting with RCMP members in Smithers, B.C., on Jan, 10, 2019.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Lack of meaningful negotiations

Coastal GasLink maintains it has tried to negotiate with hereditary leaders, even as they have consistently said they will not accept a pipeline through their territories.

Claire Marshall, an Indigenous relations consultant for Coastal GasLink from 2012 to early 2019, said in an affidavit that pipeline representatives reached out repeatedly to hereditary leaders.

Ms. Marshall said Coastal GasLink has been thwarted in attempts to consult since 2013 with Warner William, head chief of Dark House under the Gilseyhu clan. She also said the pipeline project has been stymied since 2014 in attempts to negotiate with Freda Huson, who is Mr. William’s niece and one of the co-founders of the Unist’ot’en camp that opposes the pipeline. Unist’ot’en is affiliated with Dark House, one of the 13 hereditary house groups.

Ms. Marshall said Coastal GasLink contacted Ms. Huson 40 times and requested to meet with her seven times, to no avail.

Yet going back to at least 2014, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en – a non-profit society governed by hereditary chiefs – warned consultation was flawed because it didn’t take hereditary laws into account. “Each house group is unique in dealing with their specific house territory, therefore must be reviewed individually,” said a 2014 report submitted to the province as part of the environmental assessment process. “This does not fall within the regulatory process, and was never addressed by the Crown nor the proponent.”

Ron Austin, president of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, said elected band councillors have limited powers. “They’re only in charge of the reserve area. The hereditary chiefs are in charge of the territories – all through the 22,000 square kilometres,” said Mr. Austin, who goes by the hereditary wing-chief (subchief) name Dzii Ggot.

If completed, the Coastal GasLink pipeline would supply natural gas to LNG Canada, which is building an $18-billion terminal in Kitimat, B.C., to export liquefied natural gas to Asia. Both B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back the terminal and the pipeline.

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A court order is seen close to the 40-kilometre mark near Houston, B.C.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The BC Environmental Assessment Office approved Coastal GasLink in 2014, and preliminary construction work began in early 2019 on the 670-kilometre route from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the West Coast. About 190 kilometres of the route cross the Wet’suwet’en’s territory.

The high-profile dispute, which has divided families and communities, may provide a window for Wet’suwet’en people to develop governance systems that blend elements of hereditary and elected systems, Prof. Borrows said.

For the B.C. government, he also sees a potential test run for the principles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C. adopted in 2019.

Under the new legislation, the government can authorize a member of cabinet to seek the consent of an Indigenous governing body – including, potentially, hereditary chiefs – before making a statutory decision, such as approving a pipeline.

“If we get past the stereotypes and generalizations and acrimony and think what are the issues in play, it is possible to move complex issues through a process of resolution,” Prof. Borrows said.

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Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en Nation cut trees to use for a canvas tent at the support camp on kilometre marker 40 near Houston, B.C., in January, 2020.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The Delgamuukw decision

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary system has been outlined in several court proceedings, including Delgamuukw. The case, often referred to as Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa after the main chiefs in question, involved claims to separate portions of land totalling 58,000 square kilometres in British Columbia.

The case is renowned for its length, complexity and impact. The trial heard from 61 witnesses, many of whom spoke in their own language and required translators. Seventy-one chiefs claimed 133 separate territories.

In 1991, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en rights had been extinguished at the time of Confederation. The case went through the B.C. Court of Appeal and ultimately to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in a landmark 1997 decision, confirmed Indigenous title exists in B.C. but said a new trial would be required to settle the claims. A new trial has not been held.

But Delgamuukw resonates today, underscoring hereditary chiefs’ emphasis that traditional territory has never been ceded.

That case and others have described a governance system that is clan-based and revolves around feasts.

The feast is central to Wet’suwet’en culture, Ms. Mills, the anthropologist, said in her 2019 affidavit. Feasts take place when people are given their titles and authority over territory associated with those names, along with their regalia and crests.

Feasts may also be held to settle disputes or mark the passing of property from one house to another.

Titles and land are passed through the mother’s clan, Ms. Mills said. A person born to a Wet’suwet’en woman is considered Wet’suwet’en; people may also be adopted into houses.

Where are the women?

Gloria George, Darlene Glaim and Theresa Tait-Day all support the Coastal GasLink project. The three women, who formerly held hereditary titles, helped form the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition (WMC) in 2015, saying they wanted to bridge the gap between hereditary governance and elected band councils.

In 2016, some hereditary chiefs, drumming and singing, entered a community hall in Houston, B.C., to denounce the fledgling coalition. Hereditary leaders refused to recognize the initiative, which was funded by $30,000 from Coastal GasLink and $30,000 from the provincial government, and in June, 2016, slammed the province for “divide and conquer” tactics.

Frank Alec replaced Ms. Glaim last year as Woos, head chief of Grizzly House, and eventually, the coalition fizzled. All three women have been stripped of their hereditary titles, although they continue to personally use them.

In a statement issued last month on behalf of the coalition, Ms. Tait-Day said the hereditary chiefs are not acting in the best interests of the Wet’suwet’en people. “They have gone out of their way to take women out of the decision-making,” she said.

The coalition and its supporters believe that economic benefits from the pipeline will help Wet’suwet’en people, who are members of hereditary house groups but are also eligible to vote for elected band councillors. “We have to take care of the people, to make sure people are going to survive,” said Ms. Tait-Day, who still uses the wing-chief name Wi’haliy’te. “Every band member, every Nation member, must benefit, not just one or two house groups.”

Mr. Naziel said in an affidavit that “our clan held a feast and formally rescinded the name Smogelgem,” stripping it from Ms. George. But she countered in an affidavit that hereditary titles “are only removed in the most extreme scenarios such as murder" and not stripped “like bark off a tree.”

Now, nine of 13 hereditary house chief positions are filled by men. Four of the positions are vacant. Eight of the nine men have said they oppose Coastal GasLink. One of the house chiefs has taken a neutral position.

Under hereditary governance, there aren’t any clan chiefs because each of the house groups assume responsibility for their respective territories. John Ridsdale, head chief of Rafters on Beaver House under the Tsayu clan, has become the primary spokesman for a group of house chiefs that has taken the lead in opposing the pipeline.

Mr. Ridsdale, who goes by the hereditary name Na’Moks, also denies allegations that hereditary leaders wrongly stripped Ms. George and the other two women of their hereditary names.

“They state that certain names were illegally removed. No, they weren’t,” Mr. Ridsdale said in an interview. “We did it in the feast hall by the house groups and the clans, and had the support of other chiefs.”

Band councils vs. hereditary groups

Justice Marguerite Church of B.C. Supreme Court took note of the gap between hereditary chiefs and elected band councillors when she extended what had been an interim injunction on Dec. 31, 2019, saying there appears to be “considerable tension" between the two groups.

Justice Church’s ruling was the most recent in a case that began in November, 2018, when Coastal GasLink went to court to seek an injunction to gain access to pipeline work sites. To obtain that access, the company needs to cross the Morice River Bridge, near the Unist’ot’en camp.

Ms. Huson and Mr. Naziel, named as defendants in Coastal GasLink’s injunction application, are the co-founders of the Unist’ot’en camp, which was set up in 2010 to block pipelines through the territory. By 2015, it had grown to encompass a healing lodge and cultural programs.

Mr. Naziel, who has served as head chief of Sun House since 2016, and Ms. Huson had lived together for nearly a decade as a common-law couple at the camp. They separated in early 2019.

There is often overlap between the hereditary and elected systems. As a key member of Dark House, Ms. Huson received the wing-chief name Howihkat last year and served what she describes as an eviction notice in early 2020 under Wet’suwet’en law to Coastal GasLink. She had been an elected band councillor with the Witset First Nation, one of five Indian Act Wet’suwet’en councils along the pipeline route. She ran again last year but was not re-elected.

Ms. Huson has been leading Dark House’s opposition to Coastal GasLink, saying repeatedly that the project does not have permission to build its pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land.

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Molly Wickham sings at a rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in January, 2020.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Molly Wickham has also emerged as an influential voice against Coastal GasLink. She was among 14 people arrested in January, 2019, when RCMP enforced a previous court injunction. Ms. Wickham, who received the wing-chief name Sleydo’ last year as a new member of Grizzly House, has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations in campaign drives to defend Wet’suwet’en territory.

It remains to be seen whether Ms. Huson and Ms. Wickham will advance to the role of head chiefs of their respective house groups, and it’s an even bigger question whether hereditary leaders and elected band councillors can find common ground.

To Candice George, the Wet’suwet’en’s governance system has become distorted. She recalls her great-aunt’s “naming feast” in 2009 as extended family members packed gifts, served refreshments and sat down for a meal to bestow Gloria George with a long-awaited hereditary name.

“I witnessed the day my great-aunt Gloria George became Smogelgem,” Candice George said in an e-mail to The Globe. “Please do share the story of how those who oppose the pipeline are not telling the whole truth.”

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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

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