A meeting between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and provincial and federal government officials will take place on Thursday after a brief “miscommunication” saw it abruptly cancelled, the chiefs tell Global News.
Late Wednesday, Chief Na’Moks (John Risdale) said the meeting, which had been cancelled hours earlier, was back on after hearing from the government that a “terrible miscommunication” was to blame for scuttling the talks.
“I will question them on that tomorrow, to find out what their definition of a ‘miscommunication’ is, because we were very clear that we have more than a willingness to meet with them,” Na’Moks said.
The new message was left with the executive director of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represents the chiefs.
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations would only say the latest update from the chiefs “sounds promising,” and that more would be confirmed Thursday morning.
The chiefs told Global News earlier Wednesday the federal government had asked them to call for an end to blockades across the country, but that they were unwilling to tell other Indigenous nations what to do with their territory. The chiefs cite Indigenous law that prevents them from doing so.
In a separate statement posted to its website, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en said that federal officials had cancelled the meeting.
“The Hereditary Chiefs graciously invited Federal and Provincial governments to enter into talks and they abruptly declined,” reads the statement.
In a statement, B.C. Premier John Horgan said it was “unfortunate” the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement over a meeting.
“We had hoped the hereditary chiefs would agree to a period of peace and respect during the talks, which would include encouraging their supporters to remove blockades,” he said.
Na’Moks later said former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who the province appointed as a special liaison in the dispute, was the first to hear the news and delivered it to the chiefs.
“He stepped out to take a call and he came back, and he had not a very happy expression on his face when he passed on the message that the province of British Columbia and the federal government had cancelled the meetings,” he said.
“But then a few hours later we got the call that it was back on.”
The conflicting news came after Na’Moks raised hopes of a possible breakthrough on the impasse, following meetings with Cullen.
“Today we think we can move forward on that and possibly start discussions with the federal government tomorrow,” said Na’Moks early Wednesday.
The purpose of the meetings with Cullen was to discuss preconditions for a meeting with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, although the chiefs say the meeting will now be with Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
The chiefs had laid out three conditions to meet: the removal of a contentious mobile RCMP detachment, the end of RCMP patrols in the area and a suspension of Coastal GasLink work in the area.
B.C. RCMP locked up that unit, formally known as the Community-Industry Safety Office (C-ISO) earlier this week, but it remains on the Morice West Forest Service road in Wet’suwet’en territory.
“They haven’t pulled it out, they just shuttered it, they put it behind a gate, so two out of three is good enough,” said Na’Moks.
He said the “two out of three” referred to the C-ISO being emptied out and Coastal GasLink putting down its tools.
“It’s going to be a test of good faith at this point. We put our faith forward, we put our trust forward, we put our honesty forward, now lets see what comes from the provincial and federal government.”
Coastal GasLink has not confirmed that work has stopped in the disputed Morice River area, though a worker for the company told Global News that they were told Wednesday afternoon to pull out.
Hereditary subchief Dinize Ste ohn tsiy (Rob Alfred), however, said continued RCMP patrols on Wet’suwet’en territory are a “dealbreaker” for meetings.
As talks between the hereditary chiefs and federal officials creep forward, some Wet’suwet’en member say they still feel like they’re being left out of the discussion.
Bonnie George, a former Coastal GasLink employee and pipeline supporter, said she felt like the chiefs were not listening to the community.
“We have laws that guide us and we have a communication process that that is been in order for many, many years,” she said. “Each clan in each house has a spokesperson and those individuals know who they are.
“When you’re speaking on behalf of your nation or your house group, consult with your house group members. And that’s not happening … there is no dialogue, there is no consultation, and that is why there is so much division.”
The meeting is viewed as a key step to defusing a growing national crisis, after three weeks of blockades and protests across the country in support of the hereditary chiefs.
That wave of protest sprang up after the RCMP moved in to enforce a B.C. Supreme Court injunction in Wet’suwet’en territory clearing blockades preventing work crews for a natural gas pipeline from accessing a key work site.
The chiefs are adamantly opposed to the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would traverse their unceded territory to deliver gas from fracking operations in northeastern B.C. to the province’s north coast.
All 20 elected Indigenous councils have signed agreements with the company.
However the hereditary chiefs cite the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada decision which they say grants them exclusive decision making power over their non-reserve, traditional lands.
The Delgamuukw decision recognized the validity of pre-colonial forms of government and the existence of unextinguished Indigenous rights and title, but did not rule on what lands belong to the Wet’suwet’en.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald