Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief and senior government ministers said Saturday they remain optimistic that talks will break an impasse over a pipeline dispute that has sparked widespread solidarity protests and transport disruptions.
The talks in Smithers, B.C., stretched into their third day without a deal, but negotiators from various sides said they believe they can work something out.
Chief Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale, said he hasn’t been happy with the early drafts, but noted Saturday was a new day.
“I am always optimistic, our nation is always optimistic,” he said. “I think there is a way forward, but they have their own culture and politics that has to change.”
He said that change would have implications broader than just the Coastal GasLink pipeline project the hereditary chiefs oppose, and should involve Indigenous Peoples steering the conversation rather than watching the federal government do so.
“In the past they always said this is the only vehicle available. Well, guess what? The wheels fell off, the motor blew up and we needed a new driver,” Na’Moks said. “We are in the driver’s seat. Let them be the passengers who learn from us. We always requested that.”
The talks, which involve about 25 people, began Thursday afternoon in northern B.C. and continued late into Friday night. Another update was expected later Saturday.
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and British Columbia Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said the discussions are complex but are progressing respectfully.
In a news conference Saturday, Bennett said the fact that the conversations are continuing is “a very good sign.”
“We remain optimistic that we will be able to find a conclusion that’s really good for the Wet’suwet’en Nation,” she said.
Some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are opposed to a Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in their traditional territory, an issue that has spurred solidarity protests and blockades across the country.
The demonstrations have disrupted passenger and freight train service over the last three weeks and police have recently moved to dismantle some of the blockades.
Via Rail said Friday that most service will be gradually restored as of Tuesday, including the busy route between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
The action across Canada started after RCMP moved into Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia on Feb. 6 to enforce an injunction to stop a blockade erected by those opposed to the pipeline.
In Kahnawake Mohawk Territory outside Montreal, a half-dozen demonstrators clustered under a canopy at the entrance to a rail access road as they awaited news from B.C.
“The barricade still continues on, until we get some feedback from Wet’suwet’en chiefs that they are satisfied with the negotiations,” said Kenneth Deer, secretary for the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake.
“What’s going on right now in B.C. could have started two weeks ago, three weeks ago,” he said. “It’s disturbing that it took this long.”
Deer added that his community is “encouraged” the talks are moving forward.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the blockades have created deep anxieties across the country, and he views the meetings in B.C. as a positive step.
“A lot of this could have been avoided if the federal government … had taken better steps earlier on, but I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing now,” he told reporters on Saturday, after speaking to delegates to the Nova Scotia provincial NDP convention.
“I still continue to call on the prime minister to meet with the hereditary chiefs to de-escalate and work towards peaceful resolution.”
The Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils. A majority of its councils have approved the pipeline, but some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose it running through their traditional territory.
The dispute also encompasses other unsettled land rights and title issues, including who has the right to negotiate with governments and corporations, the fact that the land is not covered by a treaty and remains unceded, and a 1997 court case that recognized the hereditary chiefs’ authority and the exclusive right of the Wet’suwet’en peoples to the land but did not specify the boundaries.
Nathan Cullen, a former NDP MP who is acting as a liaison between the governments and chiefs, said it will take more than a couple days to deal with the complex issues.
“It’s a conversation between Canada, B.C. and the Wet’suwet’en to acknowledge the rightful title holders of these 22,000 square kilometres,” he said.
Both the B.C. and federal government acknowledged that the talks are difficult.
“It’s not only about the rights and title … it’s 150 years of broken promises and of cynicism that is completely understandable about will the government do what they said they are going to do,” said Bennett.
“And how do we make sure that we can allay those fears and say, for both of our governments, that we are really serious about this and we want to be able to change the way and the kind of partnership that we require nation to nation.”
Na’moks said he believes the relationship between Indigenous people and the provincial and federal governments can be changed.
“If we stay on the track that we were on in the past, we weren’t being heard,” he said.
Na’moks said the blockades are unfortunate and noted that it didn’t have to get to that point.
“But unless they have a proper discussion with us, and how the future can change for this country and be open and honest about it, then we are just going backwards,” he said. “We don’t need to go backwards.”
— With files from Colette Derworiz in Edmonton, Chris Reynolds in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory and Michael Tutton in Halifax