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A woman rests on a walking stick as protesters block the intersection of Broadway and Commercial Drive in support of Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories, in Vancouver, on Feb. 19, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was talking this week about the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute and how young Indigenous leaders who will live with the consequences of the outcome need to be in charge of determining what happens.

As an influential, and often hardline First Nations leader, Mr. Phillip’s statement shocked me. In his more than two decades at the helm of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, he has not been known for conceding power in these types of situations.

“In reality,” Mr. Phillip said in the interview, “it’s their future at stake here.”

Mr. Phillip couldn’t be more right. But as it turns out, he was speaking about young Indigenous people who were turning out to protest against the Coastal GasLink project. He was not, in fact, talking about those who truly need to be heard: the new generation of Indigenous leaders in the B.C. Interior who are proponents of the project, the ones whose voices are most important here.

The longer this dispute drags on, the more apparent it is that there is something horribly perverse about it all. I attended a Wet’suwet’en-related protest last week that shut down a busy Vancouver intersection at rush hour. Maybe 150 people turned out. And maybe 20 were visibly Indigenous, who were there in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The rest were non-Indigenous activists of various description and cause.

The protest earlier this month at the B.C. legislature was much the same. Many of those who were blocking the doors to the building were student demonstrators who were going to return to a dorm or comfortable apartment after their day’s work was done. This was not a protest, near as I could tell, being led by Indigenous leaders who are going to bear the consequences of whatever happens in the North with the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Let’s face it: There are a whole bunch of people who have glommed on to this dispute because it offers them a chance to protest about their real cause, which is climate change. Most of them know nothing about the lives of those who actually live along the pipeline route, nothing about the poor Indigenous communities that stand to benefit from this project.

Instead of pushing microphones in the faces of demonstrators who think bitumen is flowing through this pipeline and not natural gas, we should be hearing from the likes of Crystal Smith, elected Chief of the Haisla, or Roland Willson, Chief of West Moberly, or Sandra George, Chief of the Witset or Trevor Makadahay, Chief of Doig River.

These are the people who constitute the new era of Indigenous leadership in B.C. And these are the people who are saying no to the old way of doing things. In this natural gas pipeline, they see a chance to lift their communities out of a poverty that has come to define their existence. They are saying it’s time to enter into good-faith agreements with non-Indigenous companies that hold the promise of good paying jobs for decades. These are small communities that are not sitting on real estate gold mines, such as the First Nations in Greater Vancouver. These are places that have far fewer wealth-creating options.

My concern, and I think it’s a concern that governments in both Victoria and Ottawa have right now, is that the longer this dispute drags on, the greater the likelihood pressure will be exerted on these young Indigenous leaders from elders who might now be having misgivings about supporting this project. The coalition of the willing that exists along the pipeline route could begin to fray, which would be a real shame.

The only voices that matter in this dispute, are the voices of those in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, where, we should remind people again, there is widespread support for this project, and the voices of Indigenous leaders elsewhere along the route of the pipeline.

What some millennial activist who gets a kick out of taking part in a demonstration over pipelines thinks is completely irrelevant. I get that it’s easier for the media to interview those taking part in rallies in big cities such as Vancouver and Victoria, and much harder to head north to visit the small communities that are going to be affected by the pipeline, but that’s too bad.

Right now, coverage of this dispute has been skewed far too much in favour of the minority who are backing the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline, at the expense of the vast majority of Indigenous members who want to see it go ahead, who believe their lives will benefit as a result.

It’s their future that’s at stake here.

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