British Columbia

'I'm not being disrespectful, I'm just saying be realistic': Horgan defends not meeting Wet'suwet'en chiefs

Five hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project requested, but were not granted, an interview with Premier Horgan who is currently touring northern B.C.

Hereditary chiefs opposed to pipeline not given face-to-face with the premier

Premier John Horgan says the province has discharged its responsibility with respect to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project which is opposed by five Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

John Horgan is defending his decision not to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline while touring northern B.C., saying his schedule would not permit it and he is committed to seeing the project through to completion.

The premier, who was near Wet'suwet'en territory Friday while touring the LNG Canada project site in Kitimat, was asked by the chiefs for a face-to-face discussion while in the area, which Horgan declined. Chief Na'moks, who also goes by John Risdale, said only an in-person meeting from the premier demonstrates respect for the chiefs.

"I'm not going to drop everything I'm doing to come running when someone is saying they need to speak with me," said Horgan in an interview on Daybreak North Monday. "I'm not being disrespectful, I'm just saying be realistic here."

Horgan said he had other obligations during this tour but did offer to speak to the chiefs by phone. His offer was not accepted.

"If you're going to have decent communication with anybody, it's best to be looking eye-to-eye," said Na'moks. "We want to show the respect back, too."

An in-person meeting may not change the status quo, as Horgan said he has no plans to pull permits for a project he says is an economic chance for numerous other nations along the pipeline route who do support it. 

"I think its disingenuous to suggest that a handful of people can stop progress and success for people who have been waiting for a break like this for many, many years," said Horgan. 

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project running through their traditional territory (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Coastal GasLink has signed benefit agreements with all 20 elected band councils along the 670-kilometre pipeline route. But the hereditary chiefs argue band councils only have jurisdiction over reserve lands rather than unceded territories.

The B.C. Supreme Court has granted an injunction against supporters of the hereditary chiefs who have set up camps close to a pipeline work site near Smithers. It authorizes RCMP to arrest and remove anyone contravening the order.

"There is no negotiating to be done," said Horgan. 

Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station at kilometre 39, just outside of a Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Judith Sayers, assistant professor of environmental studies and business at the University of Victoria and president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the project "flies in the face" of Wet'suwet'en's own laws which have existed since time immemorial and need to be acknowledged.

Sayers said under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which passed in the B.C. Legislature in November 2019, Indigenous people have the right to own, use and manage their own lands. 

"We've moved into a new era in British Columbia with UNDRIP, which talks about the right of self-determination," said Sayers. "Courts need to be acknowledging the laws of Indigenous people. We haven't seen that happen."

A paper sign sits taped to a snow-covered tree blocking a remote road through a forest.
A notice from RCMP to clear the road sits in a tree felled across it, blocking access to a Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Horgan said UNDRIP is meant to be forward looking, not backward looking and this project was approved in 2018.

There will always be conflict. There is conflict between families, conflict within communities. People don't always agree," said Horgan. "We are doing our level best to move forward on issues in a respectful and methodical way."

The 670-kilometre pipeline will deliver natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a liquefaction facility in Kitimat as part of a $40-billion LNG Canada project.

To hear the complete interview with Premier Horgan on Daybreak North, tap the audio link below:

With files from Daybreak North, The Canadian Press