Wet’suwet’en pact with Ottawa and B.C. disputed by elected chiefs

Click to play video: 'Wet’suwet’en chiefs, government ministers announce breakthrough agreement'
Wet’suwet’en chiefs, government ministers announce breakthrough agreement
(Aired March 1, 2020) Government representatives and Wets'uwet'en hereditary chiefs appear to have reached a proposed agreement following weeks of protests and blockades over a controversial natural gas pipeline project in northern B.C. Sarah MacDonald reports live from Smithers. – Mar 1, 2020

Elected chiefs of a First Nation that’s split over a natural gas pipeline through their territory say they will not sign a deal on rights and title, a day after the hereditary chiefs backed the agreement.

The elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nations say they don’t support the proposed memorandum of understanding on rights and title with the federal and British Columbia governments.

The hereditary chiefs decision to sign the memorandum was announced Thursday in a joint statement they issued with Ottawa and the province.

The hereditary chiefs oppose construction of a pipeline through their northwestern B.C. territories, while a majority of elected band councils support the Coastal GasLink project.

Opposition to construction of 670-kilometre pipeline set off demonstrations and blockades that shut down large parts of the national economy in February.

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Details of the memorandum haven’t been released but Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the federal and provincial governments agree it commits them to implementing the rights and title of the First Nation.

Elected chiefs say that the memorandum consultation process “lacked any semblance of credibility,” and they are asking for withdrawal of the hereditary chief’s “premature” announcement.

“The federal government, the provincial government and the hereditary chiefs have completely ignored many clan members and elected chiefs,” says the statement signed by five elected chiefs.

The negotiation process did not include openness or respect, it says, and fails to give a voice to all clan members.

“Negotiations cannot move forward until all parties agree to discuss governance among the Wet’suwet’en people so that we can work together with all levels of government,” says the statement.

In announcing the proposed memorandum of understanding, senior governments and hereditary chiefs agreed there’s a lot of work ahead in the negotiation process, including how all sides will work together.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have invited B.C.’s Indigenous relations minister, Scott Fraser, and Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, to sign the pact on May 14.

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“We look forward to advancing this important work to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title as three equal governments,” said Thursday’s statement.

The memorandum has been framed as addressing broader land claims rather than an agreement over the pipeline. It was reached after days of discussions in Smithers and work on the pipeline resumed after it was announced.

Protests across the country disrupted passenger and freight train service for more than three weeks.

Coastal GasLink has government approval for construction of the pipeline from northeastern B.C. to an LNG Canada export terminal in Kitimat, but hereditary house chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en say the company has no authority without their consent.

The Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils. Although a majority of its councils have approved the pipeline, some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose it running through their traditional territory.

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

The dispute also involves 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.

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The pipeline first generated widespread national protests in January 2019 when the RCMP enforced an injunction obtained by the company to dismantle obstacles on a remote logging road in northern B.C.

Larger protests were held across the country this February after the RCMP enforced a second injunction.

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