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Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs release details of gov’t pact, but members still concerned

Bennett won’t commit to delay signing of agreement on Wet’suwet’en land rights
WATCH: Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett on Tuesday would not publicly commit to delay the signing of a memorandum of understanding reached between the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the federal and B.C. governments earlier this year, despite multiple questions from Conservative MP Jamie Schmale.

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have released the full draft agreement reached with the federal and B.C. governments earlier this year, which confirms it will set the stage for future negotiations on land rights and title of the First Nation.

The document, released Tuesday on the Wet’suwet’en website, makes no mention of the disputed Coastal GasLink pipeline project. Rather, the pact will only apply to future rights and interests concerning traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.

Under the memorandum of understanding, the Wetsuwet’en’s rights and title over those lands will be recognized by both governments immediately after it is signed by all parties.

A virtual signing is scheduled to take place Thursday, as travel is restricted during the coronavirus pandemic.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs call for minister to resign, withdrawal of gov’t agreement

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After the signing, negotiations are set to take place immediately over the next three months on how to transfer jurisdiction to the Wet’suwet’en over land use planning, resources, water, wildlife, fish, and child and family wellness, among other issues.

Some of those jurisdictions will be exclusive to the Wet’suwet’en, while others will be shared with the federal and B.C. governments.

Within a year of the initial signing, a final agreement is expected to address specifically how Wet’suwet’en land rights and title will interface with those of the Crown.

According to a backgrounder document also posted on the Wet’suwet’en website and sent to the elected band councils, the pact does not restrict court actions or protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Discussions on the future of the project are expected to continue, it adds.

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The hereditary chiefs also insist they did not and will not receive any signing bonus or financial compensation under the agreement.

Elected leadership concerned

Four elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs have called for the memorandum of understanding to be withdrawn, arguing it wasn’t properly consulted on by all members of the Nation before the hereditary chiefs claimed it had been ratified late last month.

They’re also calling for federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to resign, accusing her of negotiating in bad faith.

Trudeau brushes off calls for indigenous relations minister’s resignation
Trudeau brushes off calls for indigenous relations minister’s resignation

In a letter dated Monday that was sent to the elected leadership of the five Wet’suwet’en band councils and posted on the Wet’suwet’en website, the hereditary chiefs say they didn’t distribute copies of the draft agreement over fears it would be leaked to the public. It was shown on overhead projectors during at least one clan meeting in March.

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After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted limits on public gatherings, further meetings were held through Zoom. The draft agreement was finally distributed to the band councils on May 7 — after the hereditary chiefs announced it had been ratified.

“In hindsight, it is possible that we should have released copies of the unsigned (memorandum of understanding) to all Wet’suwet’en earlier,” the chiefs wrote.

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

A virtual meeting between the hereditary chiefs and elected leadership on May 7, which the latter has criticized as being inadequate, came with a promise from the hereditary chiefs that a negotiator would be available afterwards to answer further questions. The chiefs say that offer was never taken up.

Gary Naziel, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief who supports the Coastal GasLink project along with the five elected chiefs and their councils, says the consultation process should have been put on hold once the pandemic hit.

“The Zoom meetings were not working, not everyone could join them,” he said of the process up until now. “We have so many elders and members completely in the dark about what’s going on.

“We were completely left out of the loop.”

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Reaction to draft deal between Wet’suwet’en and government
Reaction to draft deal between Wet’suwet’en and government

According to Naziel, at least one clan had voted against ratifying the agreement before in-person meetings were halted, while another “was on the verge of voting no.”

Hereditary chiefs contacted by Global News have not responded to requests for comment.

The chiefs do, however, assure the elected leadership in their Monday letter that all Wet’suwet’en members will be included in future negotiations after the initial agreement is signed.

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

Naziel says Bennett and her B.C. counterpart, Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, need to step in and resolve the dispute between the various factions of the Wet’suwet’en, and delay the signing of the agreement until they can assure all parties can agree to it.

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“They have the power to stop this, and it’s their responsibility to make sure everyone knows what’s being agreed to,” he said.

“The saddest part of this is, we were so close to reuniting as a Nation. But this is just going to divide us further.”

Government staying the course

Neither Bennett nor Fraser’s ministries were available to comment on the draft agreement or the elected leaders’ allegations Tuesday.

Past statements to Global News from both ministries have said it is up to the Wet’suwet’en to determine how to consult and govern its own people, and that the ministers could only take the hereditary chiefs’ word that the pact had been ratified by all clans.

When asked about the conflict and the calls for her resignation during question period Tuesday, Bennett would not commit to delaying the signing or restarting the consultation process.

Trudeau: We must remain committed to reconciliation with the Wet’suwet’en
Trudeau: We must remain committed to reconciliation with the Wet’suwet’en

“We encourage the leadership to continue their ongoing and important and necessary consultations with their community on how they want to proceed on a path towards implementing their rights and title,” she said.

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“The engagement and consultation must be led by the Wet’suwet’en Nation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday brushed off the calls for Bennett’s resignation, instead thanking her for the work she has put into the creation of the draft agreement.

“The challenges facing the Wet’suwet’en are significant in terms of how they engage and how they work with the federal government, and we will always be there as a partner to listen, to work with them and to continue moving forward on the path toward reconciliation and partnership,” he told reporters.

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

Coastal GasLink has government approval for construction of their natural gas pipeline, which is set to stretch 670 kilometres from northeastern B.C. to a coastal LNG export facility in Kitimat. But hereditary house chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en say the company has no authority to build the pipeline through their territory without their consent.

The pipeline dispute has also involved 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 draft agreement is meant to settle many of those longstanding issues.

Coastal GasLink crews back to work day after Wet’suwet’en deal
Coastal GasLink crews back to work day after Wet’suwet’en deal

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, which resulted in 28 arrests.

The protests, involving rail blockades that brought Canada’s freight and passenger trains to a halt, were not formally endorsed by the hereditary chiefs.

— With files from Sarah MacDonald and the Canadian Press