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Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser address the media in Smithers, B.C., on March 1, 2020.


Announced with such promise and amid great fanfare, the prospective agreement reached between Ottawa, B.C. and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs lives on much shakier ground today.

Though details of the proposed pact have yet to be released, there are enough worrying signs emanating from the Wet’suwet’en Nation to conclude that the chiefs who originally reached the deal on March 1 with federal Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her provincial counterpart, Scott Fraser, have not received anything resembling a hero’s welcome from those in their communities.

“The degree of satisfaction is not what we expected,” Frank Alec, a Wet’suwet’en leader whose hereditary name is Chief Woos, said recently.

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To anyone with even passing knowledge of the incredibly complex workings of the Wet’suwet’en governing structure, this will not have come as a shock. The conflict that exists among its five clans and 13 family subgroups over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project should have served as a caution for those greeting the preliminary tri-party agreement with unreserved elation.

That turmoil was underlined in the Supreme Court of British Columbia’s late-December verdict, granting an interlocutory injunction against the hereditary chiefs and other opponents of the pipeline project. In the judgment, the court said there was profound disagreements among the Wet’suwet’en people, “as to whether traditional hereditary governance protocols have or have not been followed, whether hereditary governance is appropriate for decision making that impacts the entire Wet’suwet’en nation ...”

That clash that the court referenced is now playing out, as hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline project attempt to get the deal ratified by a majority of their people. And it is not going well.

Not surprisingly, elected band council chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation are insisting on having a voice in the matter. They overwhelmingly support the pipeline project. Others have complained that communication from the hereditary chiefs who agreed to the tentative pact has been non-existent. Theresa Tait-Day, a former Wet’suwet’en hereditary leader, told a House of Commons committee meeting this week that the pipeline project has been “hijacked” by the five hereditary chiefs. She said the broader Wet’suwet’en community would not be “dictated to by a group of five guys.”

Of course, this all runs counter to the academic view that in Wet’suwet’en territory, rules are established by the ancient feast system and presided over by hereditary chiefs, who are compelled to uphold the law. But it is also self-evident that not everyone, and most importantly not many Wet’suwet’en, subscribes to this version of their history.

The deal reached between the two levels of government and the hereditary chiefs is said to address matters left over from the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision of 1997, known as Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, which affirmed the Wet’suwet’en’s rights to their land. But the court put the onus on the Wet’suwet’en and government to reach a deal on what the boundaries of that territory look like. That work was started, but was ultimately abandoned amid dissension and acrimony.

Now we can see why.

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To some extent, this issue highlights why treaties in B.C. have been so hard to hammer out. In many cases, it’s been difficult for a consensus to be reached among various First Nations. Some of that can be put down to power struggles inside the communities themselves, and some of it can be put down to differences of opinion on what a particular First Nation’s future should look like. There are some, in fact, that aren’t anxious to cut ties with Ottawa and begin an independent existence.

These complicated questions are not going to be decided any time soon. Ottawa, B.C. and First Nations in B.C. that have not signed treaties – which is the vast majority – are likely to be still haggling over land and money and rights 30 years from now. And what that means for resource development in British Columbia is not good.

It means more uncertainty. And depending on where you stand, this could be dreadful news, or the best thing you’ve heard in a long time. The liquefied natural gas project at the centre of the Wet’suwet’en dispute could well be the last such endeavour the province sees.

If, in fact, it goes ahead.

Despite all the regularly hurdles that LNG Canada had to clear to get the go-ahead for this undertaking, there is still another. Coastal GasLink is still facing a challenge to the extension of the Environmental Assessment Certificate it received.

In Canada, the road to resource development is a forever bumpy one.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column mentioned The National Energy Board's upcoming hearings. In fact, those hearings have passed.

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