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B.C. hereditary chiefs agree to discussions with province over Coastal GasLink opposition

Na'moks (centre), a spokesman for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, says they will not meet with representatives of a natural gas company that wants to build a pipeline through the First Nation's traditional territory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Amy Smart

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northern B.C. have agreed to seven days of discussions with the province over the Coastal GasLink pipeline conflict.

The eight chiefs said Thursday they have committed to meet at the discussion table known as “Wiggus,” which is the Wet’suwet’en word for “respect.”

The news comes three days after the province appointed former NDP MP Nathan Cullen as an intermediary liaison between the chiefs and the government to find a solution to the dispute.

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Five of the chiefs and their supporters are blocking construction of the $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline near a forest service road near Houston, B.C. The opponents argue the chiefs have never given Coastal GasLink consent to build on their ancestral lands.

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Construction is continuing along the rest of the 670-kilometre pipeline route, which runs from northwestern B.C. to a future LNG facility in Kitimat.

All 20 First Nations along the route have consented to the project and signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, including the elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en.

READ MORE: B.C. government appoints Nathan Cullen as liaison with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs

The hereditary chiefs have repeatedly asked to meet nation-to-nation with Premier John Horgan before discussing the dispute with members of Coastal GasLink.

Horgan has attempted to speak to the chiefs over the phone, but that was declined. They will only meet in person with Horgan, who hasn’t been able to accommodate it.

The chiefs have also declined to meet with B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, who travelled to nearby Smithers last week but only met with a representative of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.

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The chiefs said a meeting with Fraser would not be good enough, and that it is creating division among members of the First Nation.

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Horgan’s office said in a statement it welcomes the hereditary chiefs’ announcement committing to discussions.

“This Wiggus/Respect Table is an opportunity for all parties to work in good faith towards de-escalation, and we view this announcement as a positive sign that all involved are determined to find a peaceful resolution,” the office said.

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Horgan has previously said the pipeline will go ahead, pointing to a B.C. Supreme Court injunction granted on Dec. 31 against a blockade camp set up by the opponents.

The hereditary chiefs and their supporters have become increasingly concerned about potential RCMP enforcement of the injunction. A deadline for the group to clear the camp has come and gone with both sides at an impasse.

The RCMP say they are waiting for discussions to be held towards a peaceful resolution before enforcing the injunction, which the chiefs argue is not valid as it ignores Wet’suwet’en law that grants them title over their lands.

READ MORE: B.C. First Nation chiefs opposing Coastal GasLink pipeline renew request for Horgan meeting

A checkpoint set up by the RCMP that has officers questioning anyone entering the camp has only added to the tensions. The chiefs argue the checkpoint contravenes the rights of First Nation members to access their traditional territory.

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On Thursday, a coalition that includes the hereditary chiefs, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association called for a public investigation into the checkpoint, announcing it has filed a complaint with the Civilian Review and Complaint Commission for the RCMP.

The BCCLA’s Harsha Walia said police officers at the checkpoint have cited a range of inconsistent reasons for turning people away.

— With files from Richard Zussman and the Canadian Press