VANCOUVER — A Wet’suwet’en elected councillor says she has “high hopes” that internal conflict over governance issues and a pipeline can be resolved respectfully but she’s also concerned some members will not have a chance to participate in the decision on a proposed deal.
Karen Ogen-Toews, a councillor of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, said six elected councils have historically been excluded from negotiations over land rights and she hopes all Wet’suwet’en people have their say before hereditary house chiefs return to the negotiating table with senior government officials.
“I strongly believe they need to do their due diligence and include the six communities,” she said from near Burns Lake, B.C.
The hereditary house chiefs reached a draft agreement Sunday with senior federal and provincial government ministers centering on rights and title. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said it would be signed if the Wet’suwet’en Nation reaches a consensus on it.
The details of the agreement have not been made public but it has been framed as addressing broader land claims rather than an agreement over the pipeline.
Under the traditional form of governance, major decisions are made in the feast hall and information may also be shared through clan meetings, although it remains unclear what role, if any, elected councils and members outside the region may play.
While Ogen-Toews said she has been hearing second-hand that clan meetings will take place this week and next, elected council members had not received direct invitations by Monday afternoon.
In the past, hereditary leaders have announced clan meetings in local newspapers. Ogen-Toews said she hopes they invite members directly given the importance of the decision being made.
She said while the province has been negotiating title issues with the hereditary chiefs for a year, the elected chiefs and council weren’t invited.
Ogen-Toews also expressed concern that clan meetings wouldn’t be accessible to all Wet’suwet’en people, many of whom don’t live nearby.
“My concern is there’s 5,000 Wet’suwet’en people throughout the province and country. How are they going to be included?” said Ogen-Toews, who is also CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance.
The hereditary chiefs could not be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday.
Elected chiefs from the five Wet’suwet’en councils that approved the pipeline issued a statement Tuesday saying they are pleased that progress has been made between the hereditary chiefs, the provincial and federal governments.
“It’s these types of discussions that are vital in moving forward together in harmony and with respect for our history and our nation,” the statement said.
But they said the negotiations were held without their involvement and they “envision” they will be included in review of the agreement reached Sunday.
The Wet’suwet’en First Nation is one the five councils that signed agreements with Coastal GasLink, the company building the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat. Opposition to the project by hereditary chiefs, who say their authority wasn’t acknowledged, sparked solidarity protests and blockades across the country.
The division dates back to the implementation of the Indian Act and Ogen-Toews said both elected councillors and hereditary leaders agree that the division was forced upon them.
“We can agree that the Indian Act is a colonial construct that has been imposed upon us but it is the only governing system that each of the six communities has,” she said.
The elected councils administer the reserves and are responsible for everything from shipping in bottled water to infrastructure, health and education.
The proposed agreement reached over the weekend aims to define more clearly the land and title rights of the Wet’suwet’en people, following the 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision.
In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the existence of Aboriginal title as an exclusive and ancestral right to the land, but the ruling fell short of recognizing the boundaries of the territory to which Wet’suwet’en title applies. The judges suggested at the time negotiations could be a better way to resolve outstanding questions, but those discussions did not progress.
Elected councils have been just as frustrated as hereditary leaders that land rights haven’t been recognized, said Ogen-Toews.
“I have high hopes this can be resolved and that the Wet’suwet’en people can resolve our internal issues respectfully, mutually and in an open, transparent and accountable way,” she said.
Wet’suwet’en elder Russell Tiljoe, a hereditary wing chief who has spoken in favour of the pipeline, said he also heard there would be clan meetings but he hadn’t been contacted directly.
There are five clans within the Wet’suwet’en Nation and at a clan meeting, hereditary chiefs share information and gather input from members, he said.
From there, Tiljoe said he expects the chiefs to call an all-clans meeting at the feast hall, which is where major decision are traditionally made through consensus. In the feast hall, clans sit together with the host clan in the centre, and all members can have their say until agreement is reached.
“They open the floor to everyone that wants to speak,” he said. “Sometimes you have to do a lot of talking to convince the other people that this is the best way, sometimes it takes a while, because we always try and keep respectability and that’s what our feast system is based on.”
There is division over the pipeline in Wet’suwet’en communities but feasts are rooted in respect and Tiljoe said he hopes that is honoured, given the significance of the decision before them.
“It’s an important decision for us to make. It’s not just for a little while, it’s going to be for the rest of our lives, and our children’s lives.”
— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press