Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say it’s possible a landmark agreement on rights and title over their traditional lands could be signed with the provincial and federal governments this weekend — but they’re not there yet.
Saturday marked the third day of talks between the chiefs, federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser in Smithers, B.C., along with legal counsels and other parties both for and against the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
But Chief Na’Moks, one of five hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline, said the resolution being worked on by all sides goes far beyond that one project.
“This whole thing started over one project, but this country has so many … better things to do in the future with all Indigenous people beyond one project,” he said.
Na’Moks said the provincial and federal governments delivered a first draft of a potential agreement to the chiefs Friday night and a new one Saturday morning. The chief said neither address the issues the Wet’suwet’en have been fighting for for decades.
“I think they needed more sleep,” he joked about the newest draft, pointing out Friday’s talks had gone late into the night.
“I am always optimistic, our nation is always optimistic. I think there’s a way forward, but they have their own culture and politics that has to change.”
Arriving at the meetings Saturday, Bennett and Fraser said they were also feeling positive.
“We remain optimistic that we will be able to find a conclusion that’s really good for the Wet’suwet’en Nation,” Bennett said.
The agreement being sought would effectively resolve the open question left dangling at the end of the Delgamuukw decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.
Delgamuukw, which was brought by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their Gitxsan neighbours, saw the court acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal title as an exclusive and ancestral right to the land, which remains unextinguished.
However, the ruling did not recognize specifically what lands belong to the Wet’suwet’en. The judges found there was a defect in the pleadings and sent it back to trial, suggesting at the same time that goodwill negotiations could be a better way to resolve the questions it was being asked.
Those negotiations never happened until this week, leading to years of complaints from the Wet’suwet’en and Indigenous advocates that the province was delaying them in order to protect industry from the ruling’s ramifications.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have pointed to the decision as proof that they have sole rights and title over their non-reserve, traditional lands, and that the province had violated Indigenous law by approving the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Na’Moks said the hereditary chiefs are continuing to push for alternate routes for the pipeline that would go around their lands, an option the company has said would not be economically or environmentally feasible and would set the project back at least a year.
But the chief said the talks happening this weekend are an opportunity for Indigenous nations to have a greater say over such projects, which could potentially lead to revisiting the plans for this pipeline.
“In the past, they’ve always said this is the only vehicle available,” he said. “Well, guess what? The wheels fell off, the motor blew up, and we needed a new driver. We’re in the driver’s seat. Let them be the passenger and learn from us. We’ve always requested that.”
Twenty elected First Nation band councils along the pipeline route, including five bands within the Wet’suwet’en Nation, have signed agreements with the company. However, the chiefs point out those councils only have say over their reserves under the Indian Act.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald and the Canadian Press