The federal and B.C. governments have reached a proposed arrangement with the Wet’suwet’en Nation to recognize its hereditary governance system, but a resolution to a pipeline dispute remains elusive.
Talks between hereditary chiefs and senior government officials focused during the weekend on the future status of the Wet’suwet’en’s unceded traditional territory covering 22,000 square kilometres in British Columbia, and defining those boundaries.
The deal was hailed as a milestone for Indigenous rights and title, but details of the arrangement weren’t released on Sunday as they require approval from Wet’suwet’en members.
Coastal GasLink said the company’s crews will resume construction on Monday on its $6.6-billion pipeline project, after suspending work near Houston, B.C., last Thursday while the talks were being held.
Since Feb. 6, protests and blockades have spread across the country in support of a group of eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink’s plan to build a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.
“As Wet’suwet’en, we are the land, and the land is ours,” Frank Alec, who goes by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary name Woos, said during a news conference. He was speaking in his Grizzly House territory on behalf of the eight house chiefs on Sunday in Smithers, B.C.
The hereditary chiefs wrapped up their three days of meetings late Saturday night with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.
“It is quite a milestone for all of us to view this together,” said Mr. Alec, who is head chief of Grizzly House under the Gitdumden clan.
Mr. Alec, Ms. Bennett and Mr. Fraser also issued a joint statement, committing to “an expedited process to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title.” Details of the process for the Wet’suwet’en’s review of the proposed arrangement need to be ironed out.
“For me, it is about humility," Ms. Bennett said during the news conference. "It is about learning and for all that we have learned over these days, and the work that we’ve been able to do with respect. It is, as Chief Woos said, a milestone in the history of Canada.”
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross Wet’suwet’en territory.
The final two days of the meetings were held at a Smithers hotel, after the first day at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society governed by hereditary chiefs.
Hereditary chiefs continue to oppose the pipeline project, and Mr. Alec said the dispute is not over yet.
But Mr. Fraser said Coastal GasLink has the province’s environmental assessment certificate for construction. “While we have disagreement on this issue, we are developing a protocol here with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a process to recognize rights and title for the future. We’ve done that in three days and three nights, which is something that should have been done 23 years ago,” Mr. Fraser said, referring to governments’ failure to follow up on a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.
In that ruling, the court confirmed Indigenous title exists in British Columbia. The court said a new trial would be needed to settle the land claims but also recommended another path by urging governments to negotiate with First Nations in good faith over rights and title. A new trial has not been held in the case launched by hereditary chiefs with the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en; it is known as the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, named after the main chiefs.
In early February, RCMP arrested 28 people along a logging road after supporters of the hereditary chiefs set up barricades to prevent Coastal GasLink workers from crossing the Morice River Bridge to get to their construction sites.
The Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary system comprises 13 house groups, which in turn fall under five clans. The group of eight Wet’suwet’en house chiefs has led a vocal campaign against the pipeline’s construction, saying hereditary leaders, not elected band councillors, have jurisdiction over their traditional territory located outside of federal reserves.
All eight house chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink attended the meetings in Smithers. One house chief has taken a neutral view on the pipeline project while there are four vacancies for house chiefs.
Coastal GasLink has reached project agreements with 20 elected First Nation councils, including five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils along the pipeline route. Indigenous leaders who back the pipeline say the hereditary chiefs have been turbocharged by climate activists.
Peter Grant, a Vancouver lawyer who represented the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, said the proposed arrangement for the Wet’suwet’en’s rights and title has been a long time coming.
“We’re 23 years late, but at least we’re getting there,” Mr. Grant said. “Each of the clans will discuss this and then they will all come together.”
He said it is hard for him to not get emotional about rights and title, as he awaits the discussions by the Wet’suwet’en people in March. “It’s going to be on the governments to educate the non-Wet’suwet’en about what this is and to provide the assurance that it’s okay. We still have a country called Canada. It’s okay.”
Coastal GasLink began work in early 2019 on constructing a pipeline that would transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the coast, where LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia in 2025. The B.C. and federal governments back the LNG terminal and natural gas pipeline.
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said the pipeline project has its permits and remains on track for completion by the end of 2023. “While much has been accomplished, much work remains and we wish all parties success as their work continues and the Wet’suwet’en people consider the proposed arrangement,” Mr. Pfeiffer said.
Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who has been serving as a liaison between the B.C. government and hereditary chiefs since late January, said it is important for the Wet’suwet’en’s review process to play out internally this month. “Working out a rights and title arrangement, as you can imagine – loads of complexity to it,” Mr. Cullen said. “You’re talking about a new arrangement between three orders of government and what that means.”