Unist’ot’en camp founder and spokesperson Freda Huson at a gathering of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and supportive chiefs from around B.C. outside of the Coastal GasLink pipeline route. Over 200 were in the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre in Smithers to hear speeches ahead of a march last month. (Chris Gareau photo)

Unist’ot’en not joining hereditary chiefs’ provincial reconciliation

A potlatch feast will be held in March by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to discuss with clans.

Work on reconciliation is moving ahead between the Province and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, but without the Unist’ot’en.

A bahtlats (potlatch or feast) is planned by the hereditary chiefs in March to share information and initiate discussion with the Wet’suwet’en clans and house groups. The ultimate goal is for B.C. to affirm Wet’suwet’en rights and title.

In response to the joint announcement between the Province and Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the Unist’ot’en camp on Saturday posted on social media that while it respects its neighbours’ right to negotiate for their own clans and house territories, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en “does not represent the interests or position of the Unist’ot’en.”

The statement from the Unist’ot’en goes on to lambaste the provincial government for authorizing “CGL’s [Coastal GasLink] violent invasion of our territory by militarized RCMP.”

“We do not believe reconciliation is possible when our Wet’suwet’en people face the barrel of a gun. The Unist’ot’en continue to abstain from these discussions, as meaningful negotiation cannot occur under duress,” reads the Unist’ot’en statement.

Chief Na’moks (John Ridsdale) told The Interior News Friday before the Unist’ot’en statement came out that all the chiefs were on board. Dark House Chief Knedebeas (Warner William) was not reached before Monday’s print deadline.

While the release stresses the effort is not about any one project, it comes as legal action against and resistance to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline is still in full force, with the company moving forward on construction of a work camp south of Houston and the Unist’ot’en camp of the Wet’suwet’en Dark House accusing the company of activity going beyond an interim injunction and agreement with the RCMP.

Unist’ot’en Freda Huson said via text a couple hours before the release Thursday that Coastal GasLink is “speeding up the process,” pointing out that the camp agreed to not get in the way of “preliminary work” during an interim injunction set to end May 1, something she said does not go as far as the 10 housing units Coastal GasLink announced Tuesday it is transporting to the area in the next few weeks.

Coastal GasLink said in its release last Tuesday that the housing units will be occupied by local employees and contractors who over the next few months will focus on building access roads and conducting right-of-way clearing ahead of “anticipation of construction, which is not expected to get underway until next year.”

That release also said the company was to remove a “temporary structure” at one end of the Morice River bridge near the Unist’ot’en camp because it impedes safe access for the heavy equipment and housing units. The company asked the Unist’ot’en camp to move or replace the structure, but Huson said her matriarch chief would not let them.

The Unist’ot’en camp on social media described the structure as a “guard house” for its healing centre. They also refused to remove a gate that the RCMP previously agreed could stay up.

Historic discussion: Minister Fraser

Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said on Friday before the Unist’ot’en statement that starting the process of implementing Wet’suwet’en hereditary rights and title was an historic moment.

Reaching this point started with discussions last May, followed by a “listening” visit from the minister and Premier John Horgan in August, according to Fraser. He said the Province was approaching talks with Wet’suwet’en self-determination and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights Indigenous Peoples in mind.

Advantages for the Wet’suwet’en beyond implementation of rights and title to the territory include a sharing of the wealth from any projects, said Fraser. A framework would also help industry and other potential land users by bringing a level of certainty, hopefully avoiding future conflict.

When asked what all this means for the elected Wet’suwet’en bands councils who the Province and Coastal GasLink have pointed to as evidence of Indigenous consultation, Fraser said he did meet with Witset officials to discuss the reconciliation process. He said each nation in B.C. is different, and how bands are included is something to be determined through discussions. Fraser added that consultation is usually a combination of hereditary and elected, but that there was no simple answer.

The minister said he is unsure of how this may effect Wet’suwet’en hereditary views on the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline project.

“But I can’t see it not being a benefit,” said Fraser.

Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’moks (John Ridsdale) and the joint media release insisted the talks were “non-transactional.”

“One thing that we really want is implementation of our rights, title, jurisdiction and authority. Curently they [the Province] only say they recognize it; they acknowledge it but we want implementation of it. And it was clearly stated this is not a negotiation, this is simply a discussion,” said Na’moks.

“And it’s non-transactional, which means we don’t have to give our position on anything. They cannot say that ‘we need you to come to the table if you do this, that or the other thing,’ no, it’s non-transactional.”

Na’moks is looking for concrete results.

“There has to be something to show. That’s why we have to go show our nation through our feast hall, our governance system, and have the input of the entire nation on it,” he said.

All the chiefs are on board: Na’moks

Chief Na’moks said it has been long enough since the Canadian Supreme Court Delgamuukw/Gisday’ Wa case concluded in 1997. That ruling affirmed that hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan have jurisdiction over land the nations used, but that further action was needed to clarify how that would be implemented.

“All of the chiefs are on board because it’s been 42 years since Delgamuukw started — it started in ‘77 — and that’s what we wanted at that time. And here we are 42 years later and the governments, both provincial and federal, have not moved forward.

“So this is their opportunity to come on board with us. We don’t need to come on board with them, they need to come on board with us,” said Na’moks.

He added that this would stop the “downloading” of the responsibility of consultation to industry, putting it instead in the hands of the Province.

As for Coastal GasLink, Na’moks said whatever is implemented should apply.

“It should apply to industries across the board. Any damage to our lands, the environment, the water, our salmon, our plants and animals, there has to be stronger protection for them,” he said.

“I do a lot of travelling and I can’t go to their rivers and creeks and drink from it. I can here.”

Local Stikine NDP MLA and Minister for Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Doug Donaldson wanted to stress the point that there is “powerful wording” on rights, title and self-determination. He also believes implementation would mean less uncertainty for industry.

“It’s something that needs to be done to get to the Aboriginal title issue instead of a project by project issue,” said Donaldson.

“There can be projects that are proposed on traditional territories, but if we don’t address the Aboriginal title question without having to go to court, then we’re not going to be able to move ahead together, First Nations and non-First Nations.”

The Province and Office of the Wet’suwet’en agreed to have Victoria NDP MP, environmental and public law professor Murray Rankin as B.C.’s representative to “help guide and design the process.”

Read the full joint statement at interior-news.com/local-news.

 

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs lead a march in mid-January down Smithers Main Street in opposition to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline. (Chris Gareau photo)

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