Elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs demand Minister Carolyn Bennett’s resignation over the MOU process

On April 30, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments issued a joint statement informing that they will be moving forward with the agreement that lays the groundwork to acknowledge the first nation’s rights and title and would be signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to that effect on May 14.

The Wet’suwet’en elected leaders have shown disapproval over the process and are now demanding Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett’s resignation as well as withdrawal of the announcement and the MOU in it’s current format.

Immediately after the decision to sign the MOU was released, the elected chiefs released a statement in response to the joint statement and clearly stated their stand against the signing of the MOU.

“The Elected Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nations have not agreed to, nor have they given their support to sign, a proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on rights and title with Canada or British Columbia,” says the statement. The statement goes further to criticize the exclusionary process and the lack of transparency throughout the process.

The elected chiefs also had a six hour virtual meeting between the Wet’suwet’en Elected Leadership and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en on Thursday, May 7 and separate phone meetings with B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser and Minister Carolyn Bennett. However, the outcome of these meetings was similar to what the elected chiefs have been experiencing in the process of drafting the MOU.

On May 11, another joint statement undersigned by Chief Luggi, Chief Patricia Prince of Nee Tahi Buhn Indian Band, Chief Rosemarie Skin of the Skin Tyee Nation, Chief Dan George of the Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nation Burns Lake Band, was sent to Black Press, that reiterates the elected council’s “interest in seeing Wet’suwet’en rights and title properly negotiated and implemented. All members and interests must be respected at every stage. Aboriginal rights and title are the collective rights of ALL Wet’suwet’en people; they are not held only by Hereditary Chiefs and they cannot be defined or compromised by the small hand-picked group the government is dealing with.”

The latest joint statement by the elected chiefs also demands immediate resignation of Minister Carolyn Bennett due to her “disregard for our special relationship” and calls upon the B.C. and the federal government to withdraw the joint statement issued on April 29th, reject the current MOU and begin the negotiation process again including the elected councils as full participants.

When asked about the issue, Chief Maureen Luggi, of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation band located West of Burns Lake, explained in depth as to why the elected chiefs believe the process has been flawed from the beginning and why their outrage over the announcement is justified.

“A lot of their meetings were held in secret and we were all excluded,” she said adding that in late February, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en governed by the hereditary chiefs, the province and Canada negotiated a draft memorandum of understanding in which the elected chiefs were not included and were not invited to participate in the process and discussions. When the elected chiefs found out about the MOU, they requested a meeting to understand and discuss it with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.

On March 11, just outside of Burns Lake at the Wet’suwet’en First Nations, a meeting in response to the elected chiefs’ request was held. “We had a full house here with our hereditary chiefs, our elders, and all of our clan members,” said Luggi. She also said that at this meeting they requested a copy of the MOU, that was presented in draft as a power point presentation and that didn’t happen. “They were wanting us to vote on a document that we felt was presented in draft form and it could not be a document that we would accept for signature,” she said.

In addition to the meeting on March 11, a second follow-up meeting was setup, but because of the pandemic the meeting had to be postponed. However, the pandemic didn’t stop the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and the government from deciding to sign the MOU. “We don’t feel that we have concluded our discussions about this as per the meeting on March 11, and suddenly we were not even given any fair advance notice that they were planning to sign it on this date. They are just simply going ahead and signing it and ignoring all of our concerns,” said Luggi.

Luggi spoke briefly about the contents of the currently unreleased agreement. “It states in there that the Office of the Wet’suwet’en will be the indigenous governing body that will hold the aboriginal rights and titles and that has concerns for us, because they don’t participate with our community, they have not helped us build our community where we are now,” she informed.

The MOU hasn’t been officially released yet, however, Black Press obtained a copy of this MOU and published its contents on May 7. The point which Luggi made is from the part of the MOU that states, “legal recognition that the Wet’suwet’en Houses are the indigenous governing body holding the Wet’suwet’en aboriginal rights and title in accordance with our Innc Nuaden.” The Wet’suwet’en houses are led by its house chiefs, also known as the hereditary chiefs, who govern the Office of Wet’suwet’en.

Further expressing her disapproval over the process of the MOU and the participation of a society that is not involved in the day-to-day of the community, Luggi said, “The issues that they wish to discuss are very significantly big issues that they plan to negotiate within short time frames such as six months, five months, three months.” An example of these negotiations that Luggi said they gave during the meeting was to negotiate child and family wellness in five months, water concerns in six months and the Wet’suwet’en Nation Reunification Strategy in six months. These speedy timelines also concerned the elected chiefs and they expressed that they were not prepared to support the MOU.

Chief Dan George of Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nations Burns Lake Band, who is also in opposition of the MOU said, “This is very important to us. The fact is that we are elected leadership and our roles and responsibilities are for our communities—so we need to make sure that this gets done right or not at all.”

All six Wet’suwet’en elected councils, including Chief Luggi, Chief Patricia Prince, Chief Rosemarie Skin, Chief Dan George, Chief Sandra George of the Witset First Nation and Chief Cynthia Joseph of the Hagwilget First Nation Government, with an authority over reserves in the nation’s traditional territory in northwestern B.C. have expressed their disapproval over the MOU process according to Chief Luggi. “We don’t understand what the rush is. We think that maybe the Office of the Wet’suwet’en may have pressured them with respect to Coastal Gas Link (CGL), but we don’t understand why the government is forcing this upon all the communities. All six elected chiefs are in opposition to the MOU right now,” said Luggi.

The step in affirming the title has been in the making for years, ever since the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan, neighbouring First Nations, began the milestone decade-long Delgamuukw v. British Columbia lawsuit. The lawsuit was to ultimately affirm their title to 58,000 square kilometres of land. This MOU has therefore been considered by many, to be an important step towards establishing aboriginal land and title, and recognizing the indigenous as an equal in the governing process.

However, the joint statement released by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, Minister Fraser and Minister Bennett stating that they are moving forward because they received “the confirmation that the Wet’suwet’en clans have completed their review of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) we reached together on February 29, 2020 to affirm and implement Wet’suwet’en title and rights and have given their support to sign it” finds no actual support among the elected chiefs.

“We have not received disclosure of the official MOU from anybody. We don’t have a copy of it from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, or B.C. or Canada. And the Office of the Wet’suwet’en does not represent us; they are merely a registered society under the Societies Act of B.C. so they do not have a mandate to move forward in Wet’suwet’en rights and titles negotiations,” said Luggi.

The Office of the Wet’suwet’en has invited Minister Fraser and Minister Bennett to sign the MOU on May 14, 2020. “We believe that Minister Carolyn Bennett has a fiduciary duty towards us as elected chiefs and council members,” said Luggi pointing towards the B.C. treaty process that allows for communities to get ready. “Before you take the next steps, you need to allow the communities to be ready, to feel confident in the process, to have trust for one another, that there is openness and transparency. None of that has been established to date and we are very disappointed in Minister Carolyn Bennett and we are very disappointed in Minister Scott Fraser and we are very disappointed in the Office of the Wet’suwet’en,” she said.

The disappointment has now transformed into a demand for resignation from Minister Bennett and it is still to be seen how the Minister and the Government respond to this latest joint statement from the elected chiefs.

“This whole process if we were to measure it, if we were to give it a grade, this whole process would be a big F, in what would be a failure to our people. They are not doing their due diligence and they are not protecting us and allowing us to exercise our rights as Wet’suwet’en people within the process,” added Chief Luggi.

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