Tensions had reached a boiling point over a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia when a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief said he made a phone call that changed everything.
Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale, was among a group of hereditary chiefs whose opposition to the project on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory last year sparked demonstrations and rail blockades across Canada, and provoked debates about Indigenous rights and reconciliation.
He was on his way to Victoria to stand with Indigenous youth occupying the B.C. legislature steps when he called home as the new coronavirus spread across Canada.
“I thought we were making great strides,” Na’moks said in an interview.
“We made a few calls home and they said, no, you’re coming home.”
Na’moks said he has been at home near Smithers ever since.
Very little seemed like it could draw attention away from the movement but a global pandemic met the threshold.
Nearly one year later, talks between the hereditary chiefs and the provincial and federal governments over a rights and title agreement are behind schedule but ongoing. With the pipeline excluded from the agreement, however, tensions remain poised to rise again as work continues and the consequences for both resource development and reconciliation hang in the balance.
“We’re still in it,” Na’moks said. “It makes it difficult. Who expected a pandemic? But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped.”
National attention turned to a remote forest service road in northern British Columbia after the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink a new injunction against opponents who blocked the route to a work site.
It was the second time in two years that the company turned to the court and ultimately the RCMP to clear the path for its workers after it said attempts at dialogue were unsuccessful.
The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by both the province and all 20 elected First Nations councils along its path to transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a processing and export facility on the coast in Kitimat.
However, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claimed the project had no authority without consent through their traditional system of governance, inspiring supporters across the country to act in solidarity. The hostilities diffused in March when the chiefs announced alongside B.C. and federal officials that they’d reached a tentative agreement setting terms to discuss rights and title. They announced they would sign the agreement in April, opening negotiations over its implementation.
The chiefs were in their second or third round of consultations with community members over the agreement when Na’moks said the pandemic made it impossible to meet.
Talks with government officials have resumed virtually, but they’re delayed by about a year, he said.
Although the pipeline is not part of the agreement, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have a number of other areas of concern. They include full recognition of their jurisdiction over child wellness, water and 22,000 square kilometres of territory.
Na’moks said they want to be clear that the relationship is a nation-to-nation one.
“This in no way resembles any form of treaty, we’re not here for a treaty,” Na’moks said.
Some elected Wet’suwet’en council members who argued last year that they should be at the negotiating table remain disappointed that they’re not.
Karen Ogen-Toews, a councillor with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, said the pipeline conflict exacerbated rifts within the community that still need healing. She believes the rail blockades meant provincial and federal officials signed under duress.
“Our people have been divided,” she said. “That needs to be dealt with before we can move forward as a Wet’suwet’en nation.”
The elected councils may be colonial constructs, she said, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve played an important leadership role for decades and want the best for their people, too.
For Ogen-Toews, who is also CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, signing an agreement with Coastal GasLink was an opportunity to continue that work. Jobs on the project represent an opportunity to close the socio-economic gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, who face greater rates of poverty, unemployment, poor housing and poor health.
It doesn’t mean she isn’t critical of the company either.
“I think the procurement opportunities can be increased, can be better,” she said. “We don’t want just the bare minimum. We would like more opportunities.”
Coastal GasLink did not respond directly to a question about procurement opportunities.
But in a statement, the company said it is delivering significant benefits to Indigenous and local communities. To date, nearly $1 billion in contracts have been awarded, $875-million of which has been won by Indigenous groups or businesses, the statement said.
Until the governance question is sorted out, Ogen-Toews said she believes the rights and title issue should come to halt.
“At the end of the day it’s our people, it’s our clan members, our band members who are the same people who will be impacted.”
Work continues on the Coastal GasLink project and opponents are still resisting, even if gatherings are prohibited under public health orders.
Molly Wickham, who also goes by Sleydo, is the spokeswoman for the Gidimt’en checkpoint, one of the camps along the forest road where Mounties arrested pipeline opponents in 2019 and 2020.
She said she never expected the Wet’suwet’en resistance to dominate the front pages of newspapers forever and has spent a lot of the past year thinking about more lasting change.
“We all know, who are in this movement, that there’s a lot of work and a lot of strategizing and a lot of thinking about, how do we make this a sustainable movement for Indigenous sovereignty for the long term?”
The answer she’s landed on is “quite complex,” she said.
Occupying the territory is a major step. It’s not only important for Indigenous people to reconnect with ancestral lands, but also adds weight to any arguments they make in Canadian courts, she said.
Wet’suwet’en members began reoccupying the territory before Coastal GasLink was proposed, she said. She moved her own family into a cabin on the territory in 2014.
Reclaiming systems of government is another step forward, even if some knowledge has been interrupted by colonialism, Wickham said.
There’s also strength in numbers. There’s no way government would have agreed to negotiate had it not been for others, like Mohawk supporters who led rail blockades in Ontario, she said.
“I see it as a collective struggle,” she said. “Absolutely every situation is unique but we’re all in this together.”
Wickham said she doesn’t believe the rights and title negotiations affect what happens on the ground with Coastal GasLink. As long as the work is ongoing, she’s prepared to resist.
“It doesn’t matter whether they talk for another year or another 10 years. The Wet’suwet’en remain opposed to this project and will take action in accordance with our government,” she said.
Occupations on the scale seen in 2019 and 2020 aren’t likely while COVID-19 remains a real threat. In the past, the opposition relied heavily on allies who flocked to the territory to occupy the camps, so elders wouldn’t be put at risk, she said.
But local members have begun occupying new parts of the territory nonetheless, including a hunting blind in a ravine near Wedzin’kwa, also known as the Morice River, which has been a focal point of the movement to protect the land.
The river is critical habitat for salmon and is central to Wet’suwet’en identity and survival, she said.
A Coastal GasLink work schedule suggests the company plans to divert part of the river to lay pipe and locals are prepared to fight if that happens, she said.
Coastal GasLink did not respond directly to a question about whether the new occupations were affecting progress or whether diverting or drilling under the river was planned in spring.
Beyond the pandemic, the provincial election also saw a new Indigenous relations minister take charge of the Wet’suwet’en file.
Murray Rankin served as British Columbia’s lead negotiator in talks with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in 2019 before replacing cabinet minister Scott Fraser, who did not seek re-election last year.
Rankin, who has a background in Indigenous law, sees his role as offering assistance as the Wet’suwet’en mend internal conflicts and confirm a governance structure.
“It’s obviously for them as a nation to decide amongst themselves how they wish to go forward. I want to do whatever I can in assisting in moving forward in a positive way,” Rankin said.
The unresolved issues could be seen as dating back to 1846, when Britain asserted sovereignty. Or it could date to the 1997 Delgamuukw case, which won the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their Gitxsan neighbours recognition of their Aboriginal title as an ancestral right in the Supreme Court of Canada. The court did not specify where it applied.
“The chief justice said we’re all here to stay and encouraged the governments of Canada and British Columbia to negotiate a lasting resolution. Well, here we are a generation later and we’re doing that work,” Rankin said.
“I wish we had done it earlier, but there’s no time like the present to make progress.”
During his time as negotiator, Rankin said it was made clear that the agreement over rights and title would not affect Coastal GasLink, which was a permitted and approved.
“They were coincident in time, but our work did not involve CGL, nor does the current negotiation involve that particular project,” he said.
The tentative agreement is only a starting point to engage the province, federal government and Wet’suwet’en nation in a process for determining what their relationship looks like in the future, he said.
In addition to the ongoing negotiations, the province is also working with non-Indigenous communities and others with a stake in the outcome.
“We want to make sure that when we do come up with an agreement that it attracts the support of the communities affected,” he said.
Of course, the pandemic isn’t helping.
“You can imagine how difficult it is to negotiate by Zoom, negotiating by Zoom is never easy. The pandemic has required us to honour the health protocol,” he said, but “that is to the detriment, I think, of the honest conversations that occur when you’re sitting around a table.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett declined an interview request, but in a statement she said the Supreme Court encouraged parties in the Delgamuukw case to pursue good faith negotiations and that’s what Canada is focused on.
“We firmly believe strong and self-reliant Indigenous nations that are able to fulfil their right to self-determination will lead to healthy and sustainable Indigenous communities with improved well-being and economic prosperity. Supporting Indigenous communities as they choose their path to rebuild their nations is critical to reconciliation and renewing our relationship,” the statement said.
“Our commitment to continue our negotiations to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title is strong.”
When Coastal GasLink announced in 2018 that it had signed agreements with all 20 First Nation along its proposed path, then-president Rick Gateman declared it an important milestone.
“When we first began this project over six years ago, our goal was to build more than just relationships with First Nations communities in B.C.; it was to build trusted partnerships, and that has made all the difference,” he said in a statement at the time.
Gary Naziel, an elected councillor of the Witset First Nation on Wet’suwet’en territory, called it a testament to what can be achieved when industry and First Nations work together.
In addition to opposition from the hereditary leadership, the project has faced the added challenge of COVID-19.
In an update Friday, the company said one quarter of construction is complete but long-term impacts on the project schedule were still being assessed.
The company declined to make anyone available for an interview but provided a statement on what happened a year ago.
“When we reflect on the events of early 2020 and the blockades across Canada, we are reminded of the importance of constructive dialogue based on mutual respect, working together to resolve the issues that affect all of us and perhaps more importantly, the vital importance of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” it said.
“These are discussions that transcend a single project.”
The company continues to communicate with Indigenous communities across the route, including hereditary and elected Wet’suwet’en representatives, it said.
“While we understand there are those who will never support the project, we appreciate the opportunities to remain engaged in open dialogue.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press