Wet’suwet’en chiefs to sign proposed agreement with governments over land rights, title

Click to play video: 'Wet’suwet’en chief, federal minister announce ‘proposed arrangement’ on land rights'
Wet’suwet’en chief, federal minister announce ‘proposed arrangement’ on land rights
WATCH: (Aired March 1) Wet’suwet’en chief, federal minister announce ‘proposed arrangement’ on land rights – Mar 1, 2020

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say they will sign a proposed agreement reached with the provincial and federal governments earlier this year on land rights and title over their traditional territories in northern B.C.

Yet Thursday’s joint announcement from the chiefs and governments does not make mention of the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline project, which sparked the discussions that led to the draft agreement.

The joint statement says the clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have agreed to ratify the memorandum of understanding after reviewing it over the past few weeks.

READ MORE: Proposed agreement reached between Wet’suwet’en chiefs, gov’t ministers after 3 days of talks

The chiefs have invited federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart, Scott Fraser, to sign the memorandum on May 14, which the statement says will happen virtually due to travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

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“We look forward to advancing this important work to implement Wet’suwet’en right and title as three equal governments,” the statement reads.

All sides say there will be further negotiations ahead to determine how the terms within the agreement will be implemented, particularly when it comes to land rights and title. They say the document is an “important first step” in the process, but that it does not solidify any terms on those issues once it’s signed.

Click to play video: 'Reaction to draft deal between Wet’suwet’en and government'
Reaction to draft deal between Wet’suwet’en and government

Sources within the Wet’suwet’en Nation, however, have told Global News that not all members of the Nation have been able to discuss or even review the agreement.

Those members say community lockdowns meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 made it impossible for many members to attend meetings with the chiefs, who announced the agreement had been agreed to by the Nation on Saturday.

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Global News has reached out to the hereditary chiefs and both governments for responses to those claims.

READ MORE: Lawyer behind historic B.C. land rights case calls new Wet’suwet’en arrangement ‘powerful’

Details of the proposed agreement, which was reached late on Feb. 29 after three full days of talks, have not been released. Those details are due to be

However, all sides said while announcing the deal on March 1 that it does not apply to the disputed Coastal GasLink pipeline project that is set to cross through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, B.C.

Instead, the agreement would only apply to future projects and other decisions made concerning the lands, over which the hereditary chiefs have always claimed sovereignty.

Click to play video: 'Coastal GasLink crews back to work day after Wet’suwet’en deal'
Coastal GasLink crews back to work day after Wet’suwet’en deal

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.

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The $6.6-billion project will carry natural gas from Dawson Creek to a planned LNG export facility in Kitimat.

All sides said in March that the new 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.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en councillor calls for inclusive decision making for proposed deal

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 earlier this year.

The hereditary chiefs have still pointed to the Delgamuukw decision as proof 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.

Click to play video: 'Draft deal with Wet’suwet’en chiefs doesn’t apply to Coastal GasLink pipeline'
Draft deal with Wet’suwet’en chiefs doesn’t apply to Coastal GasLink pipeline

The protests were sparked by the RCMP moving into Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting 28 people in February while enforcing a court injunction won by Coastal GasLink. The company sought the injunction in order to clear dozens of pipeline opponents from blocking access to a key project worksite on the disputed Wet’suwet’en land.

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Construction at that worksite, which was halted for four days to allow the discussion between the chiefs and government ministers to go ahead, resumed shortly after the agreement was reached.

-With files from Sarah MacDonald

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