A memorandum of understanding was signed Thursday by the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and ministers for the B.C. and federal governments, marking the start of further negotiations to establish rights and title for the Nation over their traditional lands.
Yet the signing has only further angered the Nation’s elected leadership, which is repeating calls for one federal minister to resign while asking another to “speak up” amid the internal conflict.
The virtual ceremony saw the hereditary chiefs, federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C.’s Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser witness each other signing the document through Zoom, as travel has been restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The pact acknowledges the Wet’suwet’en will hold jurisdiction over matters concerning their traditional territory in northern B.C., while setting timetables within the next year to negotiate several issues surrounding their rights and title.
“We are doing this for everyone,” Chief Na’Moks, also known as John Risdale, said in a statement. “The past cannot be changed, but the future can.”
Another hereditary chief, Chief Woos or Frank Alec, said the resulting negotiations will lead to better relationships and establish strong economies for the Wet’suwet’en and both governments.
“Wet’suwet’en people, regardless of political views and opinions can now visualize certainty,” he said.
The chiefs have said the resulting agreement will be the first of its kind for any First Nation in Canada concerning their authority over traditional territories.
Both Bennett and Fraser underlined that the signing of the document is the first step in the negotiation process as they held their signed copies to the camera during the ceremony.
“As negotiations begin, a comprehensive, inclusive and transparent engagement process will support the parties so they can work together towards a final agreement on the affirmation and implementation of Wet’suwet’en rights and title,” Bennett said in a statement.
The pact and the resulting negotiations will not impact the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline project, which the hereditary chiefs oppose and which sparked the talks that lead to the memorandum of understanding.
The elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en band councils, who are in favour of the project and have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, have argued they were not properly consulted on the government pact and therefore want it withdrawn.
After the signing, the elected leadership issued a statement repeating earlier calls for Bennett’s resignation, accusing her of negotiating in bad faith and not taking their concerns seriously.
They also called on Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to “speak up regarding your intention to protect the programs and services the Wet’suwet’en people depend on.”
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not able to have sufficient meetings with the people to hear their voices and opinions,” the chiefs said. “This lack of proper consultation and secrecy means the governments have acted in bad faith contrary to the Honour of the Crown.”
Members of the Nation have told Global News that before public gatherings were shut down by the province, the pact had been shown to at least one clan within the Nation, who had voted against ratifying it. Another clan was about to also vote no when the pandemic hit.
The hereditary chiefs have not responded to requests for comment on those specific allegations. However, they have admitted they should have distributed the document to members earlier, which they avoided doing to avoid leaks.
The elected chiefs and councillors say they did not get a chance to see the document until last week. The hereditary chiefs, who posted the document on their website on Tuesday, confirmed this.
Earlier this week, when asked about the conflict during Question Period, Bennett would not commit to delaying the signing of the pact to allow for further consultations within the Nation.
Both governments have said any internal dispute or governance issue is up to the Wet’suwet’en to resolve.
The new pact 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.
That 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 pointed to the Delgamuukw decision as proof that the province had violated Indigenous law by approving the pipeline.
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.
Protests across the country, including blockades that brought Canada’s rail network to a halt, 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.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald and the Canadian Press