Politics among the Wet’suwet’en of northern British Columbia are like politics anywhere: Divisive and heated. There are distinct poles and no seeming middle ground. The roiling issue is a pipeline.
Major construction on the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline is set to begin this summer. The pipeline would extend from natural-gas fields in northeastern B.C. some 670 kilometres westward to Kitimat, where an $18-billion liquefied natural-gas export plant is under construction. About one quarter of the pipeline route crosses Wet’suwet’en land. The pipeline is supposed to be finished in 2023, and the LNG facility is expected to export gas in 2025.
A blockade against pipeline work on Wet’suwet’en land flared a year ago. The situation was settled, but ill feelings among pipeline opponents did not abate. In the past week, opponents have moved to keep construction workers out – there were dozens of felled trees on a service road – and a court injunction banning protests once more looms, with RCMP set to enforce the order. Last year there were 14 arrests, garnering wide attention. Some Wet’suwet’en have vowed to defy the most recent injunction.
Wet’suwet’en politics are complicated. The primary issue is there are two forms of government: a hereditary system that stretches back centuries; and the band council system under the Indian Act.
There are 13 Wet’suwet’en houses. Each has its own hereditary chief. The houses are divided into five clans but it is the houses where decisions are made. Separate from this traditional form of government, which is supposed to work on a matrilineal basis, there are five Wet’suwet’en Indian Act bands involved.
The hereditary chiefs lead the opposition. The elected Wet’suwet’en band councils back the pipeline, as do all elected Indigenous councils along the pipeline route.
“For the Wet’suwet’en, it’s the hereditary clan system that makes decisions on our territory, not the elected band councils,” said one hereditary leader in a recent interview with The Globe.
This view, however, suggests a unanimity among hereditary leaders, which is not the case. Three Wet’suwet’en women were stripped of their hereditary titles in a disagreement over the pipeline. They had formed a group that sought a decision-making system for the Wet’suwet’en as a whole, and lobbied male hereditary leaders to sign a pipeline deal.
“I estimate that a large majority of our nation supports the project,” one of the women, Theresa Tait-Day, said in a court affidavit. Of opponents, she has argued, “A few house chiefs cannot make decisions for our nation. Everyone in our nation is equal and has a voice that deserves to be heard.”
The Supreme Court of B.C. highlighted all this in a judgment in late December that granted the injunction against the protests. “The Indigenous legal perspective in this case is complex and diverse,” the judgment said.
Amid the debate, there appears to be solid support for the pipeline, among the Wet’suwet’en and along the entire route. This is the same rugged terrain in northern B.C. where the Gateway oil-sands pipeline was once proposed. That pipeline was widely opposed by Indigenous groups.
In the case of natural gas, Indigenous supporters see it as less risky – there is no fear of a corrosive oil spill – while also providing income in a region where there are few economic opportunities. About $340-million will be paid to the 20 bands on the route over the decades of operation. Indigenous groups are also looking at buying a 10-per-cent ownership stake. Construction itself offers immediate benefits – an estimated $620-million of contract work for Indigenous businesses.
One Wet’suwet’en band member and business leader, in the court judgment, talked of a $75-million deal for construction camp facilities that could employ up to 80 people. “The project represents a generational opportunity,” he said.
Opposition among hereditary chiefs has to be taken seriously – as does the traditional form of governance. However, the rule of law must be respected. No industrial project anywhere could win full support, whether it is in downtown Toronto, rural Alberta, or in We’suwet’en territory. The question of whose voice among the Wet’suwet’en is paramount is difficult for outsiders to answer. But Indigenous backing for the pipeline is clear. Opponents should not unilaterally declare that their views supersede those of pipeline backers.