There have been no major demonstrations this week in solidarity with the First Nations people along the Coastal GasLink route who are waiting for change to come to their communities.
There have been no blockades disrupting VIA Rail trains; nothing in midtown Toronto; no one outside the B.C. Legislature; no disruptions on the Reconciliation Bridge in Calgary; no stopping of traffic in downtown Ottawa; and no protests along busy Vancouver intersections.
The demonstrations you’re thinking of were in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose the $6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline across northern B.C. It’s their slogans that have been broadly adopted, their opinions that are being mirrored in protest and their case that has been taken up so fervently by supporters all across Canada.
The voices of band members from 20 First Nations along the Coastal GasLink project route who want it to continue – those who have indicated, through elections or other means, that they want construction on the natural gas pipeline to move ahead – have been eclipsed by the views of a small group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who hold jurisdiction over just a portion of the land the pipeline will cover.
These chiefs do not speak for all First Nations people along the route, just as no small group of Jewish leaders, or black leaders, or Muslim leaders necessarily speak for their entire communities. That is particularly true in this case, however, since all the elected First Nations councils along the route have signed benefits agreements with the company for the pipeline to move ahead. Yet in midtown Toronto and downtown Vancouver, we erroneously take the voices of the few to speak for the many, as if Indigenous opinion is one homogeneous, uniform, uncomplicated thing.
Two Wet’suwet’en Nation members at the forefront of the opposition to Coastal GasLink – Freda Huson, a Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chief, and Warner Naziel, who goes by the name hereditary Chief Smogelgem – actually ran in the Witset Band Council election (in Wet’suwet’en) last August. Chief Smogelgem would have maintained jurisdiction over the land either way, since the Supreme Court’s Delgamuukw decision upheld aboriginal title over unceded land, essentially meaning that hereditary chiefs – not elected chiefs and council – have authority over off-reserve land. But the election was nevertheless an opportunity for Chief Smogelgem to represent his band as both an elected spokesperson as well as a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief.
The Witset membership, however, had other ideas, and elected a pro-GasLink candidate, Sandra George, over Chief Smogelgem and Ms. Huson. That outcome, along with the council’s approval of the pipeline, ought to signal the temperature of members on the issue.
Of course, the approval of all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline route does not mean that all members absolutely support the pipeline. Some chiefs have signed on with clear and expressed reservations (Nak'azdli Band Chief Alexander McKinnon, for example), while others have exhibited more enthusiasm (Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith). But prolonged consultations, along with elections and referendums, have together suggested that a good proportion of those whose lives will be directly affected by Coastal GasLink support the project and want the blockade to end.
Most point to the economic opportunities afforded by benefits agreements with the pipeline company, which typically include upfront cash, annual payments as well as skills training, education contracts and job opportunities – the latter of which is particularly important in remote areas with limited options for work. Several residents spoke in court depositions to the detrimental impact a delay will have on their communities, noting that their rights under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, are being infringed upon as a result of the blockade.
Indeed, the view of many Coastal GasLink advocates in the region is that it offers a way out of poverty and a real path to better housing, education and social infrastructure. Ideally, there would be another option beyond just pipelines or poverty: one that would be less disruptive to the local environment and less divisive within communities. But with pressing concerns both on- and off-reserve, elected band councils have clearly decided that idealism will have to wait. For those of us watching from afar, it’s fair to disagree with that perspective, but not to pretend it doesn’t exist.
As with everything involving the duty to consult, Indigenous governance and pipeline politics, the situation involving the Coastal GasLink standoff is anything but straightforward. What is clear, however, is that when protesters block access to the Legislature in Victoria or traffic in Ottawa, they are doing so in opposition to the expressed wishes of many Wet’suwet’en residents and others along the route – those who want the blockade to end and are waiting for the benefits the pipeline will bring. Solidarity protesters, though they might not realize it, are quite literally standing in the way of that.
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