The elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation are calling for the resignation of Canada’s Indigenous-Crown relations minister and the withdrawal of a draft agreement on land rights and title, arguing the consultation process has been “flawed and incomplete.”
In a statement released Monday, the elected leadership said the memorandum of understanding reached between the hereditary chiefs and the federal and B.C. governments earlier this year has not been fully circulated to the Nation’s clans for their input, and was only seen by the elected chiefs this past Thursday.
That appears to contradict a joint statement issued by the hereditary chiefs and the governments at the end of April, which announced the draft arrangement had been agreed to by all clans and members of the Nation after weeks of consultation.
“Aboriginal rights and title are the collective rights of ALL Wet’suwet’en people; they are not held only by hereditary chiefs and they cannot be defined or compromised by the small hand-picked group the government is dealing with,” the statement signed by four elected chiefs reads.
“That is 19th century treaty making, not 21st century reconciliation.”
The elected chiefs say they held separate phone meetings with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser last week, where they shared their concerns over the consultation process.
While the leadership says Fraser has offered “vague assurance of full involvement for the elected leadership” in writing, they say Bennett “did not have the decency to respond in any form.”
The chiefs say Bennett must resign as minister immediately “due to your disregard for our special relationship.”
Global News has reached out to Bennett’s office for comment, as well as to B.C.’s Indigenous relations ministry.
The elected chiefs say a six-hour meeting last Thursday with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represents the hereditary chiefs, also soured, with the elected leadership arguing they were treated “improperly.”
They add that the office, which allegedly requested the meeting, “failed to adequately inform” the elected chiefs about what meetings have taken place regarding the government pact, and with whom.
The hereditary chiefs have explained that under Wet’suwet’en law, all clans and their members must agree to any deal or agreement that affects the Nation’s future.
Those chiefs have yet to respond to requests for comment on the elected chiefs’ allegations.
The hereditary chiefs have invited Bennett and Fraser to sign the memorandum on May 14, which will happen virtually due to travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The draft arrangement, once signed, is meant to set the terms of future negotiations on land rights and title for traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C., where part of the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline is being constructed.
The deal is not expected to impact that project, which the elected chiefs support, only applying to future broader land claims.
Details of the pact, which was reached late on Feb. 29 after three full days of talks, are due to be released once it is signed, according to the governments.
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 hereditary 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.
All sides said in March that the new agreement and future negotiations 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 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 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.
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