Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the federal and B.C. ministers of Indigenous relations wrapped up a first day of talks Thursday with no resolution, but with plans to resume meeting Friday morning.
The chiefs tell Global News the talks in Smithers, B.C., went well as all sides attempt to find a solution to the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.
Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser arrived separately Thursday for the meetings. They emerged feeling confident, but wouldn’t go into detail about what was discussed as they didn’t want to “jeopardize” the process.
“We had a productive day today, and we’re hoping for a very solid day tomorrow too,” Fraser said. “It was very good, it was very respectful.”
In a statement Thursday, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en said the meetings were a “first step,” as both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan declined an invitation to meet directly.
The hereditary chiefs say they agreed to the meeting after the RCMP agreed to stop all patrols on a contentious forest service road and shut down a mobile detachment in the area. They said Coastal GasLink has also agreed to suspend operations.
The chiefs say they have agreed to keep the road clear of obstructions “for the passage of Wet’suwet’en people and their guests without interference.”
“We believe these conditions provide the space we need to be able to sit down at the table in good faith and a positive path forward,” said Chief Na’Moks (John Risdale) in a statement.
“We hope the RCMP and CGL see the wisdom in that and help create the conditions for positive and respectful discussions. We are so close and have called on the provincial and federal governments to support this de-escalation of activities so that this issue can be resolved.”
Thursday morning, Benentt called the meetings “truly important,” while Fraser said the province was “coming to the table with a commitment to respectful dialogue and are focused on finding a peaceful path forward.”
Coastal GasLink has confirmed that it has agreed to a two-day pause on construction activities in the area to facilitate the talks.
The breakthrough came after a rapidly evolving situation Wednesday.
Chief Na’Moks had raised hopes that the meeting would go ahead Thursday, but chiefs then appeared to suggest that conditions for the meeting had not been met, and said that Ottawa had insisted that the hereditary chiefs encourage solidarity blockaders elsewhere in Canada stand down.
The hereditary chiefs issued a statement saying federal officials had abruptly cancelled the meeting Wednesday evening.
Premier John Horgan’s office issued a statement Wednesday, saying “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.”
Na’Moks later told Global News that the cancellation was the result of a “terrible miscommunication” on the part of the federal government.
“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.
In Smithers Thursday, Bennett did not directly address the source of the miscommunication.
“I was in the air, so I was on my way here. We always wanted to meet,” she said.
“Everybody believes there needed to be some space to be able to have respectful talks …. we all believe their supporters need to continue to support, but I think we need that to be a safe space for us to continue to talk.”
Aside from the issue of blockades outside of Wet’suwet’en territory, the chiefs told Global News Wednesday that talks on their other three conditions went well.
Those conditions included the closure of an RCMP mobile detachment in Wet’suwet’en territory, the end of RCMP patrols and a pause on Coastal GasLink work in the area.
BC Liberal MLA and Haisla Nation member Ellis Ross told Global News he hopes ministers keep both sides of the dispute front of mind if the meetings take place.
“You can’t just look at that one isolated story, you’ve got to look at all the different communities that are looking forward to the job and economics because we fought for like 40 years to be included in the economics,” he said.
“And now there’s this campaign, from Aboriginals, mind you, even the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, to exclude us from the economy.”
The hoped-for meeting comes as blockades and protests in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs continue across Canada.
The dispute centres around that $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would carry natural gas from fracking operations in B.C.’s northeast to a massive new LNG export plant on the province’s north coast.
The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected Indigenous councils along the pipeline’s route.
But 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.