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Minister prepared to stay in northern B.C. for Wet’suwet’en talks ‘as long as it takes’

Talks continue in northern B.C. between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and senior government ministers
Talks aimed at ending the nation-wide protests and blockades over a northern B.C. pipeline continued in Smithers today. Global's Sarah MacDonald is there.

Canada’s minister of Crown-Indigenous relations is willing to stay in northern B.C. “as long as it takes” to reach a solution with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs over the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute, her staff said Friday.

Carolyn Bennett’s spokesperson made the comments to Global News as the minister and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser took part in a second day of talks in Smithers with the chiefs and other parties both for and against the project.

The ministers later confirmed they are staying in Smithers overnight and plan to continue talking Saturday morning. But the hereditary chiefs will likely not be available until later in the day, they said, citing funerals they are attending.

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Friday’s meeting went late into the night, with all sides staying past the departure of the last flight out of town — guaranteeing the ministers would be staying at least until Saturday evening.

Those inside the hall said the talks were productive and went well, but no comments were provided once the group went home for the night, other than to say no resolution was reached.

Bennett’s spokesperson said comment would likely be provided Saturday morning ahead of the next round of talks.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs meet for 2nd day with feds over pipeline dispute

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Fraser said he’s also willing to stick it out until a deal can be reached that’s satisfactory to all sides.

“We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the things we disagree on,” he said.

Senior ministers on day two of talks with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs
Senior ministers on day two of talks with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs

Friday’s meeting also included some matriarchs from the elected band councils within the Wet’suwet’en Nation who support the pipeline, who were allowed into the meeting Thursday after protesting their exclusion.

The women and other pipeline supporters read statements on behalf of the majority of Wet’suwet’en members who say the pipeline will bring economic prosperity to their community.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en matriarchs get long-awaited seats at table with hereditary chiefs, ministers

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Twenty elected band councils along the 670-kilometre route of the Coastal GasLink pipeline have signed agreements with the company, including five of the six bands within the Wet’suwet’en itself.

But the hereditary chiefs say only they can decide what happens on their traditional territory, including the area around the Morice River near Houston, B.C., where the pipeline is set to cross on its way to a LNG export facility in Kitimat. The band councils, the chiefs say, only have authority over their reserves under the Indian Act.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs meet with gov’t ministers for second day
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs meet with gov’t ministers for second day

The hereditary chiefs have urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan to join them at the table, and on Friday Bennett left the door open to that possibility in the future.

“We would want any meeting with the prime minister and the premier to be a good meeting, and therefore we have to do the work,” she said.

But Horgan said Thursday he has no plans to head to Smithers in the near future, adding he’s putting his trust in the ministers to find a peaceful resolution and “a way forward.”

The premier pointed to past meetings and trips to the territory last year as proof he’s willing to make himself available.

READ MORE: Indigenous police in Wet’suwet’en territory could ‘calm things down,’ Kahnawake chief says

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The meetings are seen by the chiefs as a “first step” in resolving the dispute, which has led to weeks of rail blockades and protests across the country in solidarity with the pipeline opponents.

The protests reached a fever pitch after RCMP arrested 28 people in the Morice River area while enforcing an injunction on behalf of Coastal GasLink, which was unable to access a critical work site in the area due to blockades set up by Wet’suwet’en members.

Former B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, who was appointed as a liaison between the government and the hereditary chiefs, said finding a resolution to the dispute is bound to take some time, and is happy negotiations have begun.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers meet in northern B.C. over pipeline dispute
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers meet in northern B.C. over pipeline dispute

“It was always going to be a table to solve this,” he said ahead of Friday’s meeting. “It wasn’t going to happen at a blockade. It wasn’t going to happen at a protest. It was always going to be a conversation between leadership, and I think the fact that we are here is positive.

“For those folks that are expecting a full and final resolution of this matter after a day and a half of talks, I think that is a very, very high expectation to have. I think with the historical issues that exist, that’s a tough one to be able to pull off in such a few number of hours.”

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—With files from Global’s Sarah MacDonald and the Canadian Press