Federal and B.C. Indigenous relations ministers will take part in a virtual signing ceremony with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs Thursday, which they see as the start of a new relationship between the First Nation and both governments.
The memorandum of understanding that’s due to be signed will set the terms for months of negotiations on land rights and title for the Wet’suwet’en over their traditional territory in northern B.C., which will be recognized by the Crown.
It does not, however, affect the disputed Coastal GasLink pipeline project the hereditary chiefs and their supporters have been fighting against for years.
Instead, it places timelines over the next 12 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.
After those issues are settled, the Wet’suwet’en will have governance over their territory that must be observed during planning and negotiations for all future projects and land uses — ideally avoiding a repeat of the Coastal GasLink conflict.
In a statement Wednesday, Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the draft agreement is “an important step in our work to rebuild our relationship with the Wet’suwet’en.”
“It establishes a path forward for substantive discussions towards a final agreement describing future governance and the implementation of their rights and title,” the statement said, explaining rights and title won’t be implemented upon the agreement’s signing.
“Any agreement, once reached, would be taken back to all Wet’suwet’en people through a process that must clearly demonstrate the consent of the members of the nation.”
Bennett’s B.C. counterpart, Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, said in his own statement Wednesday that all factions of the Wet’suwet’en will be engaged during the next several months of negotiations, including elected councils, neighbouring Nations and the public.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us in recognizing and implementing Wet’suwet’en rights and title,” Fraser said.
A copy of the memorandum of understanding was posted by the hereditary chiefs to the Wet’suwet’en website Tuesday. The document will be signed virtually by the chiefs, Bennett and Fraser from different parts of the country, as travel is restricted during the coronavirus pandemic.
The hereditary chiefs have not returned repeated requests for comment from Global News.
In a statement dated Tuesday and posted to the Wet’suwet’en website Wednesday, the chiefs say they have heard the “recommendations, concerns, fears and cautious optimism” of other members over the agreement and what it means for the future of the Nation, and promise “we are listening.”
“We look forward to more sharing, more collaboration and strengthening our relations, in following our core teaching of wiggus (respect), living in a good way, with all our people and settlers in our yintah (land),” the statement reads.
A majority of the elected band chiefs within the Nation have called for the pact to be withdrawn and for negotiations to begin again, arguing they weren’t properly consulted with and that they didn’t even see the document until last week. They’ve also called for Bennett to resign, accusing the government of negotiating in bad faith.
Bennett and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have brushed off the resignation calls. Bennett would not commit to delaying Thursday’s signing to allow for further negotiations when challenged on the issue in Question Period Tuesday.
The hereditary chiefs have admitted the could have distributed the document to all members earlier, but they were worried about the details leaking to the public early. They said Zoom meetings were held after the pandemic put limits on large gatherings, which critics have said left many elders out of the conversation.
Both governments have said any conflicts within the Wet’suwet’en are up to the Nation’s leaders to resolve.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said the province is not choosing sides by agreeing to the signing despite the concerns of the elected leadership.
“What we do know is the Wet’suwet’en have to figure this out themselves,” he told a news conference on Wednesday. “How they govern themselves is up to them.”
In an interview with the Canadian Press, Indigenous law expert Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said the signing should be postponed to allow the Wet’suwet’en to sort out their governance issues and give the entire process more time.
“I understand it was produced in this cauldron of pressure with the Coastal GasLink protests, but what was touted as being this massive shift and fantastic agreement, now that we all see it, it’s like, ‘What?'” said Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia’s law school.
“It’s possibly going to saddle people with more conflict and deeper conflict.”
She said the memorandum also appears to contradict B.C.’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by granting governing rights to the hereditary chiefs.
The hereditary chiefs have told Nation members that the agreement does not stand in the way of future court challenges or protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is continuing to be constructed in all areas along its 670-kilometre route from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat.
— With files from the Canadian Press