Wet’suwet’en deal recognizes rights and title, sets stage for ongoing talks

Wet’suwet’en deal recognizes rights and title, sets stage for ongoing talks

SMITHERS, B.C. — A draft agreement between hereditary chiefs who oppose a pipeline in northern British Columbia and the federal and provincial governments recognizes the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en under the First Nation’s system of governance.

The memorandum of understanding reached more than two months ago was released today by the Wet’suwet’en on its website.

The document does not address Wet’suwet’en opposition to the natural gas pipeline that is being built through their territory by Coastal Gaslink.

A frequently asked questions document on the website says the agreement has no impact on the pipeline.

“In fact, the other two governments know that they will need to address the impact of (the pipeline) on the Wet’suwet’en territory,” the document says.

It says the government is “on notice of the severe impact” from the pipeline in the southern Wet’suwet’en territory.

“Nothing in this agreement restricts the court actions and protests relating to (Coastal Gaslink) from proceeding.”

A spokesman for the hereditary chiefs could not be reached for comment.

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.

The document says Canada and B.C. have recognized Wet’suwet’en title to the territory and their right to govern that territory.

The recognition means that the governments will not be able to “ever again” approve a project without the First Nation being a part of the decision.

Five elected Wet’suwet’en councils signed agreements with Coastal Gaslink on the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline through northern B.C. to Kitimat.

The Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils.

Coastal GasLink has government approval for construction of the pipeline, 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 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.

The proposed memorandum places timelines on negotiations affecting jurisdiction over land use planning, resources, water, wildlife, fish, and child and family wellness, among other things.

Nathan Cullen, a former New Democrat MP who acted as a liaison between the governments and chiefs, said the agreement is scheduled to be signed on Thursday.

“I assume they’re going to do this virtually,” he said, noting the pandemic restrictions.

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 memorandum.

Once the document is signed, all three parties will be on the clock, Cullen said.

“There’ll be a strong community engagement process and I know the Wet’suwet’en are committed to some internal dialogues they have within the nation,” he said.

“It’s lots of work and lots of things to debate.”

The agreement, dated March 1, was reached amid blockades of key transportation routes that shut down parts of the national economy.

The elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nations have said they don’t support the memorandum because it was negotiated behind closed doors.

Gary Naziel, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief, said he thinks the process of signing should be held off until the pandemic is over.

“It’s not our way of doing business behind people’s backs,” he said.

His vision was reunification of the nation but not in the way it is being done, Naziel said.

“If the (memorandum of understanding) goes ahead you’ll see more separation within the nation and they’re already separating clans and clan members, and houses,” he said.

“We can’t just give titles and rights to people who make up their own laws and ignore the Wet’suwet’en law, ignore the grassroots hereditary chiefs.”

Naziel said the people should be allowed to discuss the proposed agreement in a feast hall.

“We sat here for 30 years already, waiting and talking about it. We can wait another year or two. It’s not going to hurt anything.”

— By Hina Alam in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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