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B.C., federal ministers call for meeting with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs at ‘earliest opportunity’

Trudeau government remains uncertain on resolution to blockades
WATCH: Trudeau government remains uncertain on resolution to blockades (Feb. 17)

The ministers tasked with Indigenous relations for B.C. and the federal government say they’re ready to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs at “the earliest opportunity.”

The two ministers have sent a letter to the hereditary chiefs expressing their willingness to meet, but no timeline has been set for the tete-a-tete.

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B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser and federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett met in Victoria Monday to discuss a path forward as the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline continues to fuel protests and blockades across the country.

READ MORE: Port of Vancouver faces ‘backlog’ with more than 40 ships at anchor amid protests, blockades

Demonstrators, who have shut down rail lines and staged rallies in dozens of cities, say they’re supporting the chiefs and Indigenous sovereignty and want the RCMP and the pipeline company out of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

Demonstrations in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation’s Coastal Gaslink blockade
Demonstrations in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation’s Coastal Gaslink blockade

Global News has requested comment from the hereditary chiefs.

“We are available, both of us, and we’re hopeful that we can work together towards a constructive dialogue and action to address all these key issues at hand right now,” said Fraser on CKNW Monday.

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READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en and B.C. government have been discussing path forward for a year

“The primary focus, everyone agreed, is safety and ultimately a peaceful resolution to the situation.”

Fraser met with the hereditary chiefs in the days before B.C. RCMP enforced an injunction on traditional Wet’suwet’en territory to remove blockades preventing Coastal GasLink crews from accessing a key work site.

While that police action touched off a wave of protests and civil disobedience, Fraser said he is hopeful a new meeting with federal representation can move the conversation forward.

Anti-pipeline protests stop West Coast Express
Anti-pipeline protests stop West Coast Express

“That was the original request, that the federal and provincial government come to the table,” he said. “This will be the first time that happens.”

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Fraser pointed to an agreement with the Gitxsan last week to end a blockade near New Hazelton in support of the hereditary chiefs, pending face to face talks, as an example of how dialogue can work.

READ MORE: Coastal GasLink says alternate pipeline route proposed by Wet’suwet’en chiefs not ‘feasible’

But while the ministers seek to open dialogue with the hereditary chiefs, Fraser acknowledged the province wasn’t moving from its support of the pipeline.

“The permits have been in for many years and the environmental assessment permit was issued years ago also. That was following a lot of consultation with all the First Nations along the pipeline route,” said Fraser.

“The project’s not going anywhere. It’s been deemed in the best interests of the province by the government and everything is in place.”

That could prove troublesome, with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs indicating over the weekend that they, too had no plans to budge from their position regarding the pipeline.

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Fraser added internal “governance issues” within the Wet’suwet’en nation need to be resolved by its members themselves.

The five elected Wet’suwet’en councils affected by the project have all signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink.

Under the Indian Act, those councils are responsible for governance of matters on-reserve only — however it is clear that their support for the project is reflected among a number of members of the nation.

Meanwhile, hereditary chiefs point to the Supreme Court of Canada’s acknowledgment of unextinguished rights and title and the validity of pre-colonial forms of government in their claim of full authority over traditional territories.

“And so we have no consensus within Wet’suwet’en on how to move forward and even how to affect, you know, a relationship with government. So those need issues need to be dealt with,” said Fraser. 

Police arrest protesters at two Lower Mainland ports
Police arrest protesters at two Lower Mainland ports

Bennett’s sitdown with Fraser in Victoria came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held an emergency, closed-door meeting with cabinet ministers in Ottawa to discuss the blockades.

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Trudeau emerged from the meeting emphasizing his desire to find an end to the crisis, adding he had reached out to a number of premiers and Indigenous leaders to discuss the standoff. Yet the prime minister was tightlipped about his plan to reach that conclusion.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en solidarity protesters block CN rail lines in East Vancouver, Amtrak affected

“I understand how worrisome this is for so many Canadians and difficult for many people and families across the country,” Trudeau said.

“We’re going to continue to focus on resolving the situation quickly and peacefully, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The prime minister, who cancelled a two-day trip to Barbados this week to deal with the crisis at home, did not take any questions before being driven away by his RCMP security detail.

Demonstrators opposed to Coastal GasLink pipeline project target Vancouver rail lines
Demonstrators opposed to Coastal GasLink pipeline project target Vancouver rail lines

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Justice Minister David Lametti and others who attended the meeting with Trudeau were similarly mum on how they planned to address the crisis.

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The ministerial meetings in Ottawa and Victoria came as protesters continued to block rail lines as well as highways and bridges in different parts of the country. Those included shutting down for the first time the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing near Kingston, Ont.

The Ontario Provincial Police indicated they didn’t plan on breaking up that protest, saying “the OPP has no role to play in the underlying issues of the event and is not in a position to resolve them.” Protesters lifted their blockade of the bridge in the afternoon.

With files from Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press