After months of conjecture and leaks of uncertain veracity, Wet’suwet’en members finally got a chance last week to see what their hereditary chiefs had agreed with the British Columbia and federal governments with respect to control over their ancestral lands. The hereditary chiefs are selling it hard.
“You will be the first Indigenous Nation in Canada to have recognition of your Aboriginal title over your territory by agreement,” they boasted in a backgrounder document explaining the memorandum of understanding. In return, they added, the signatory federal and British Columbia governments got “absolutely nothing.”
“Canada and B.C. recognize the Wet’suwet’en rights and title are held by the Wet’suwet’en houses under their system of government,” reads the first paragraph of the memorandum of understanding. Perhaps that’s suitable for framing. But the nature of those rights and title is still to be negotiated over many months. Excluding titles and signatures, the memorandum consists of one page; the landmark 1999 Nisga’a agreement, the first modern treaty signed in B.C. for a century, has 252.
This is a massive undertaking. To wit: “Areas of jurisdiction that will need to be addressed include… child and family wellness; water; Wet’suwet’en national reunification strategy; wildlife; fish; land use planning; lands and resources; revenue sharing, fair and just compensation, economic component of Aboriginal title; informed decision making; and such other areas as the Wet’suwet’en propose.”
“In some cases the jurisdiction that is transferred… will be exclusive, and in some cases it will be shared with Canada or B.C.”
None of the jurisdiction will be transferred until “specifics on how Aboriginal and Crown titles interface have been addressed,” or until “clarity” is achieved on the “Wet’suwet’en governance structures, systems, and laws.”
All of that is supposed to happen within 12 months. It’s more likely Donald Trump and Joe Biden will walk together on the moon.
In the meantime, the memorandum has precisely zero immediate effect on the Coastal GasLink pipeline project — which is odd, because the controversy over that pipeline is the only reason this memorandum exists. It was what forced government ministers to the table… and yet what they’ve come up with solves nothing.
It’s more likely Donald Trump and Joe Biden will walk together on the moon
In theory, there’s no bad time to sit down and hammer out longstanding disagreements. But this conflict has introduced Canadians to a tragically divided community with a uniquely dysfunctional governance structure that everyone agrees needs reform — including the hereditary chiefs, at least according to the memorandum, to the point of requiring a “national reunification strategy.”
In opposing the pipeline the hereditary chiefs are at loggerheads with the elected band councils and, as far as anyone can tell, a solid majority of Wet’suwet’en members. They have stripped pro-pipeline hereditary chiefs of their titles and installed anti-pipeline replacements. They did not keep promises — echoed by provincial and federal politicians — to at least run the memorandum of understanding by the rank and file. They wouldn’t even distribute draft copies. Now Wet’suwet’en members are supposed to believe identical promises that they’ll be kept in the loop going forward.
Understandably, then, many of them see this memorandum as fruit of a poison tree, and a rotten foundation on which to build a new future. “If (the negotiation) goes ahead you’ll see more separation within the nation and they’re already separating clans and clan members, and houses,” Gary Naziel, a hereditary subchief, told Canadian Press.
“We’re not understanding what is the rush here,” elected chief Maureen Luggi told CBC — a sentiment Naziel echoed. “We sat here for 30 years already, waiting and talking about it,” Naziel said. “We can wait another year or two. It’s not going to hurt anything.”
Indeed, from the average Wet’suwet’en member’s point of view, there is no hurry at all. The logical thing would be to fix the governance structure, heal the wounds that need healing, and then undertake these monumental negotiations.
But for the governments involved, this wasn’t about offering the Wet’suwet’en a better future. It was about putting out a fire: A group of Mohawks thousands of kilometres away in eastern Ontario had blockaded CN’s main line in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs; and the Ontario Provincial Police, armed with an injunction demanding the blockade end, refused to lift a finger.
Somebody had to get screwed, and it was the rank-and-file Wet’suwet’en
Something had to give. Somebody had to get screwed, and it was the rank-and-file Wet’suwet’en. For no good reason whatsoever, the hereditary chiefs now hold all the keys to their future. It’s an appalling and appallingly predictable result.
“I don’t see why the government gave them this, because this has got nothing to do with what the protests across Canada started from,” chief Dan George of Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation told CBC. “Those issues are not resolved. They can set up roadblocks again and do it again, and that’s what I’m worried about.”
If negotiations don’t go well, that might well prove to be a prescient remark. But for now, the hereditary chiefs’ victory is total: They have every reason to stay the course. The message to other groups, however, is clear: If you want to advance your cause, make friends with the Ontario Mohawks. They pretty much run the country.