A proposed agreement on land rights and title has been reached between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers, bringing three long days of negotiations in northern B.C. to an end and tentatively resolving a longstanding dispute over the First Nation’s traditional territory.
Yet the forward-looking “arrangement” announced by the chiefs, federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser does not apply to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, meaning the contentious project is still going ahead as planned for now.
The details of the agreement have not been released. The ministers and chiefs agreed that the arrangement will be shown to all members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation first before the ministers return to Smithers for a signing if it is agreed upon.
“It’s quite a milestone for all of us to view this together,” Chief Woos said Sunday morning. “We’re at a point in this moment in time to see if the arrangements will work in all aspects of what we stand for as Wet’suwet’en.”
Bennett called the proposed agreement a “beginning” in a new relationship between government and Indigenous peoples.
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“It is about making sure that this never happens again,” the minister said, speaking to the decades of dispute over who has authority over traditional Wet’suwet’en lands and other Indigenous territories, particularly when it comes to infrastructure projects in those lands.
“The rights holders will always be at the table, and that is the way forward for Canada if we continue to move on what the prime minister has said on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, partnership: that’s the way forward,” she said.
Bennett said the agreement 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.
The decision saw the court acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal title as an exclusive and ancestral right to the land, which remains unextinguished. But the ruling did not decide on what what lands actually belong to the Wet’suwet’en, and called for further negotiations — a process that didn’t happen until now.
However, Coastal GasLink has confirmed that work on the pipeline will still resume in the disputed territory near Houston, B.C., on Monday as previously scheduled.
The company halted work in the area to allow the talks to proceed Thursday, which along with the withdrawal of RCMP was a condition the chiefs said must be met before sitting down with the government.
Fraser said the Coastal GasLink project is still provincially approved and permitted, and did not say anything that put the future of the pipeline in doubt.
“While we have disagreement on this issue, we are developing a protocol here … to recognize rights and title for the future,” he said. “I ask for some space and calm to allow us to continue that work.”
In a statement, Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer reaffirmed the project is still on track to be completed by 2023, but added he sees the conclusion of talks as positive and lays the groundwork for future consultations.
“While much has been accomplished, much work remains and we wish all parties success as their work continues and the Wet’suwet’en people consider the proposed arrangement,” he said.
“Coastal GasLink remains committed to dialogue and engagement with all Indigenous groups along our route, including the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and Dark House. We are encouraged by Chief Woos’ statement that he is open to dialogue and look forward to an opportunity to meet with the Hereditary Chiefs.”
Coastal GasLink was recently asked by the Environmental Assessment Office to consult further with both the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and affected clans within the Wet’suwet’en Nation in order to meet one of the conditions outlined in the project’s environmental certificate.
That process is expected to take 30 days — although members of the Unist’ot’en clan are protesting the call to return to talks with Coastal GasLink after the company sought an injunction against land defenders who blocked access to their worksite, resulting in RCMP arresting 28 people last month.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have pointed to the Delgamuukw 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 pipeline.
The dispute reached a fever pitch in the wake of the arrests when solidarity protests sprung up across Canada, blocking rail lines and ports for weeks and crippling the national economy.
Chief Woos said he and the other hereditary chiefs at the centre of the dispute are still opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but Woos said the group remains open to continued dialogue.
Bennett said with the ruling being addressed in the new agreement, it could lead to an entirely new consultation process with future energy infrastructure projects that would ensure respect and collaboration on all sides.
“It means at the very first idea of a project, the rights holders would be there at the table with their Indigenous knowledge and the voices of their nations,” she said.
“This is a beginning of how we work toward that nation-to-nation relationship coast-to-coast-to-coast.”
Woos and the ministers said more work is set to be done on the agreement reached this weekend, with the chiefs hoping to have consultation wrapped up within the clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in a couple of weeks.
Twenty elected First Nation band councils along the Coastal GasLink 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.
The $6.6-billion project will carry natural gas from Dawson Creek to a planned LNG export facility in Kitimat.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald