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Chris Selley: Ottawa hands Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs total victory, while band members lose

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.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief Gary Naziel.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/File

“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.

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Government hopes for breakthrough in Wet’suwet’en blockades this week

The federal and provincial governments want to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs this week in a bid to stop a series of crippling blockades in support of those chief’s anti-pipeline stance.

The move comes as local protesters prepare for an unknown action starting in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, met in Victoria to “talk about finding a peaceful resolution to the blockades across the country and other issues arising from the concerns of Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.”

In a joint statement, Fraser and Bennett said last week’s string of Canada-wide blockades of rail-lines, government buildings and political offices were “a significant challenge.”

“We have reached out through a joint letter to the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs about meeting with us at the earliest opportunity and are hopeful we can all work together to establish a process for ongoing and constructive dialogue and action to address the issues at hand. Our primary focus is everyone’s safety and ultimately, a peaceful resolution to the situation.”

Postmedia News has seen the letter dated Feb. 16, 2020, sent to Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs (c/o Office of the Wet’suwet’en) in Smithers.

The letter states that it was the result of a request by Gitxsan hereditary chief Spookw to arrange a meeting between the two senior levels of government and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline being put through the Wet’suwet’en’s 22,000 square kilometre territory. Spookw is acting as a broker – the Gitxsan’s 33,000 square kilometre territory is north of the Wet’suwet’en.

Five of the six Wet’suwet’en reserve bands have signed on with Coastal GasLink, but 10 of the 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have rejected the Coastal GasLink’s pipeline project outright. The hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline are Woos, Smogelgem, Knedebeas, Samooh, Way tah K’eght, Hagwilnegh, Madeek, Kloum Khun and Na’moks. All 10 chiefs are men.

Georgia St. blocked during an Indigenous led march to Victory Square in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in January, 2019.

Nick Procaylo /


According to the Council of the Wet’suwet’en (that represents the nation’s reserve bands, five clans and 13 hereditary chiefs) three chief seats are vacant. There are roughly 5,000 Wet’suwet’en. 

At least three wing chiefs (the deputy to the chief) are in favour of the pipeline and there are claims that two former hereditary chiefs were deposed because they supported the pipeline.

The Feb. 16 letter goes on to state: “We agree that dialogue is the best and preferred way to deal with these issues,” suggesting the government is not prepared at this point to use force against a well-organized nationwide protest movement. 

Local protest spokesperson Natalie Knight told Postmedia News that Wet’suwet’en chiefs were not responsible for the course of action the Metro Vancouver protesters took.

Knight said protestors were meeting on Tuesday at 2 p.m. at 380 East Hastings Street and would commence an action from there. She would not reveal what that action would be, however, last week her group blocked rail lines and two busy intersections.

Approximately 100 people march in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in their opposition to the GasLink pipeline project, along Grandview Highway Saturday, February 15, 2020.

Jason Payne /


The Feb. 16 letter came three days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote to chief Spookw saying a cabinet minister would meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, and two days after B.C. Premier John Horgan made the same promise — although as part of that deal Horgan said the “blockade of the CN line will be removed to allow for a period of calm and peaceful dialogue.”

The blockade of the main CN Rail line in Northern B.C. (near New Hazelton) was taken down the same day. However, later in the week the West Coast Express commuter train was blocked, as was an East Vancouver rail line.

Protesters also continued to block rail lines as well as highways and bridges in different parts of the country on Monday.

Those included shutting down for the first time the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing near Kingston, Ont. and a CN Rail crossing on Highway 75 in southern Manitoba.

Trudeau held an emergency, closed-door meeting with cabinet ministers in Ottawa on Monday to discuss the blockades.

He did not answer reporter’s questions after leaving the meeting.

The RCMP set up a checkpoint on the Morice West Forest Service Road on Jan. 13, 2020.

Submitted /


Jen Wickham, a Wet’suwet’en band member who belongs to the Grizzly House of the Gitdumden Clan, has been active in ground zero of the conflict — the Morice Forest Road that leads to a Coastal GasLink work camp southeast of Houston.

Wickham said she was not surprised that the protest had become so widespread.

“I think that Indigenous people have been suffering colonization and the exploitation of our lands and resources since contact and Wet’suwet’en are in a very unique position because we have the Delgamuukw court decision that other nations have used to successfully gain title recognition,” Wickham said, referring to the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision that established Aboriginal title to unceded land.

Wickham said she was unsure how the three hereditary chiefs of her clan would respond to the letter issued on Sunday.

However, she said they “want a nation to nation discussion and they want the RCMP and CGL out of our territories.”


Knight said that the Coastal GasLink pipeline protest was about more than the Wet’suwet’en and pipeline fight, and had spread to “the shared history of violence experienced by Indigenous people, and Punjabi and Chinese communities in so-called B.C. Both Punjabi and Chinese people were displaced from their own lands due to the violence of British colonialism and the parallels between this colonial violence and the violence experienced by Indigenous people here is clear and ongoing.”

The protest movement is backed by the David Suzuki Foundation, B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Coastal GasLink is building the 670km underground pipeline to ship fracked natural gas to the LNG Canada plant being built in Kitimat. The pipeline is scheduled to be complete in 2023.

The company has promised to spend $1 billion of its $6.6 billion budget on contracts, grants and training opportunities for the 20 First Nations bands along the route that it has signed agreements with.

— with files from Canadian Press

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