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Protesters who stand in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs march down Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, on Feb. 12, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Two Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs have launched a constitutional challenge in an effort to have the federal government commit to climate targets by modifying or cancelling energy projects such as the Coastal GasLink pipeline under construction in British Columbia.

Warner Naziel and Alphonse Gagnon are the plaintiffs in the statement of claim filed this week in federal court against Ottawa, saying Canada has a constitutional obligation to adhere to its emissions targets under the Paris Agreement on climate.

“The plaintiffs therefore seek a court order declaring as unconstitutional those statutory provisions that permit such projects to continue their high greenhouse-gas emissions,” according to the 27-page lawsuit filed by their lawyer, Richard Overstall.

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Coastal GasLink’s $6.6-billion pipeline from northeast B.C. 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.

The constitutional challenge has emerged after RCMP began moving in on a logging road to enforce a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to restore Coastal GasLink’s access to the final sections of its route.

Between Thursday and Monday, RCMP arrested 28 people on the logging road, and protests have escalated and spread across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

Mr. Naziel, who goes by the hereditary name Smogelgem, is head chief of Sun House, which is one of 13 Wet’suwet’en house groups. His uncle, Mr. Gagnon, goes by the hereditary name Kloum Khun under Owl House. Both house groups fall under the Laksamshu clan, which is one of five Wet’suwet’en clans.

Mr. Naziel and Mr. Gagnon are the plaintiffs named on behalf of their house groups.

“The defendant has deprived the plaintiffs of their right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law based on the age of the plaintiffs’ younger members and future generations by making laws that allow high GHG-emitting projects to operate now and into the future in breach of Canada’s fair contribution to keep global warming to non-catastrophic levels,” their court action said.

Mr. Overstall said in an interview he will be making legal arguments, including citing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to show that the federal cabinet would have the discretion to modify or withdraw previous approvals for energy projects in the face of global warming.

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Both the B.C. and federal governments back the LNG terminal and natural gas pipeline. Coastal GasLink has signed project agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along the route, including five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils. About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre route cross into the Wet’suwet’en’s unceded territory.

Bonnie George, a Wet’suwet’en member who formerly worked on contract for Coastal GasLink, said elected band councillors fought the now-defunct plans for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from northern Alberta to Kitimat, but have accepted the natural gas pipeline project.

“Natural gas is less intrusive than oil,” Ms. George said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s disheartening now to see what’s happening. Protesters across Canada should ask our people who are out of work what they think. As a Wet’suwet’en matriarch, I’m embarrassed, because there are two sides to the story."

The constitutional challenge contrasts sharply with the view of four First Nations in northern British Columbia that support LNG exports. The elected leaders of the Haisla, Lax Kw’alaams, Metlakatla and Nisga’a issued a statement last month on behalf of the First Nations Climate Initiative to say they support LNG while also backing climate action.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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