After years spent fighting for their voices to be heard in the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute, Wet’suwet’en matriarchs and chiefs both for and against the project got to sit down with hereditary chiefs and government ministers at Thursday’s historic meeting.
The women gained their seats after complaining earlier that they were being locked out of the discussions, with the anger among both sides turning towards each other outside the meeting hall.
But by the time all the parties walked back outside at the end of the “positive” talks Thursday evening, that anger had largely been replaced by optimism and gratitude.
“There’s many of us who have voices and we deserve for them to hear our voices too,” said Bonnie George, who got emotional as she talked about finally getting a seat at the table.
“This is our first step towards reconciliation, and it just makes my heart feel good as a Wet’suwet’en matriarch on something that we’ve been working on for a long, long time.”
George, a former Coastal GasLink employee herself, is a member of the Witset First Nation, one of five elected band councils within the larger Wet’suwet’en Nation that have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink in support of the pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en First Nation, another of those councils, was also represented at the meeting by several matriarchs and chiefs.
Fifteen others along the full pipeline route have also signed agreements with the company, which is spending $6.6 billion to build a natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to the planned LNG export facility in Kitimat.
The hereditary chiefs opposing the pipeline have argued that under Indigenous law and the Indian Act, those councils only have say over what happens within their reserves. The chiefs, meanwhile, say only they have rights and title over the nation’s broader traditional territory.
The dispute between the hereditary and elected leaders has led to accusations that the hereditary chiefs are trying to silence members of the band councils, including matriarchs who are looked to as strong voices of leadership within the community.
“He does not speak for us,” Wet’suwet’en First Nation member Elaine Morris Stevens said about Chief Na’Moks, also known as John Ridsdale and who is one of the most vocal of the hereditary chiefs.
“He’s leaving us out of these meetings because he’s trying to be our voice, and he’s not our voice.”
Stevens made her comments before the matriarchs were allowed into the meeting. She and several other women gathered outside the hall Thursday morning to not only demand they be let in, but to also voice support for the pipeline.
That drew the ire of other matriarchs who angrily voiced their opposition to the project — something elders said would have never happened in their grandparents’ time, when all sides were allowed into discussions and co-operated peacefully.
“They’re just hurting my feelings,” said Helen Nikal. “Those are my friends who are yelling at us.”
But Adrienne Wilson, a young mother of two, said she and the other women who joined her outside the meeting are fighting for the future of the Wet’suwet’en, which includes the environment.
Eileen Tommy said she wants her four children to learn the skills of her ancestors — hunting, fishing, trapping, camping — that opponents say are under threat from the pipeline.
“Where they’re building the pipeline goes right through where our fish spawn,” she said. “What are we going to do when we have no more fish?
“For me, it seems like they all just want the money,” she added, turning her attention to the pipeline supporters. “Yeah, we need money to survive, but we still need our traditional food to live.”
Caught in the middle of the dispute is Gladys Naziel, who has worked in oil and gas across the Prairies and whose brother is a high-ranking member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
She says it’s hard to pick sides as she has family both for and against the project, and she herself can see both the positives and the negatives that come with it.
“I understand wanting to save the environment, but I also understand that people need to feed their families,” she said. “Times like this, we need money to provide for our families, because we don’t get help. We’re struggling, we’re in poverty.”
“I really hope CGL can do a different route,” she added — one that can avoid the Unist’ot’en healing centre that provides addiction treatment and spiritual services to the larger Wet’suwet’en community.
The healing centre sits close to where the pipeline is set to cross the Morice River. A blockade camp set up to protect the healing centre and halt construction nearby was broken up earlier this month by RCMP, who arrested 28 people at that and other camps along the road leading to the construction site.
One of those people arrested was Freda Huson, who holds a hereditary title within the Dark House clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. She was named in the injunction order that RCMP were enforcing when the arrests were made as one of the project’s chief opponents.
Huson also attended Thursday’s meeting and said the feeling on all sides was one of “respect.”
When asked about the rail blockades and other protests that have spread across the country in the weeks since the arrests, Huson was hesitant to comment as the actions are “not on my territory.”
“I just think people are aware that climate change is happening, and that’s what I think it’s all about,” she said.
Many of the matriarchs will be back at the table when talks resume Friday morning. Whatever comes out of the meetings, Wilson says the most important outcome is that everyone gets a voice.
“Us Indigenous people want to be heard,” she said. “We want to know that we are people. We aren’t just ‘you people,’ which is what I keep hearing. We aren’t ‘you people,’ we are people.”
—With files from Sarah MacDonald