British Columbia

Draft agreement between governments, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs offers hope and uncertainty

Key figures in the talks say the draft accord reached on Sunday gives them hope that a consensus over the Coastal GasLink pipeline can be found. But, they add, this week will be critical in gauging how Indigenous groups and activists across the country who support the Wet'suwet'en cause will react to the agreement.

No details of accord made public, but it's known that there's still no agreement on Coastal GasLink pipeline

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relation, Carolyn Bennett (left) beside Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos, also known as Frank Alec, on March 1. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

While four days of intense talks between Wet'suwet'en leaders and government ministers led to a draft agreement over rights and land titles, there's no certainty whether the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline — and Canada-wide protests and blockades — is any closer to an end.

Key figures in the talks say the draft accord reached on Sunday gives them hope that a consensus over the pipeline can be found. But, they add, this week will be critical in gauging how Indigenous groups and activists across the country who support the Wet'suwet'en cause will react to the agreement.

No details of the accord have been made public, but it's known that no agreement has been reached on the proposed $6.6-billion pipeline in northern B.C., construction of which resumed Monday.

Sunday's draft accord will be reviewed by Wet'suwet'en clans and houses for approval.

Coastal GasLink signed agreements with 20 elected First Nation councils along the pipeline's 670-kilometre path, but five Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs say the project has no authority without their consent.

'This is going to be a critical week'

Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who was brought in as a liaison by the government to help facilitate talks between provincial and federal ministers and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, says communication has improved and that makes him more hopeful.

But questions remain over how protesters who have blocked roads and rail lines will react to the terms of the agreement once they're made public.

"This is going to be a critical week. I do hope it's a good one," Cullen told CBC on Monday.

"The next couple of days, I suspect, will be telling in terms of the ability to keep calm and peace out on the land." 

Construction work on the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline is underway along the Morice Forest Service Road, near Smithers, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

At least one Mohawk rail barricade in Eastern Canada will remain in place until more details emerge.

Kenneth Deer, a representative of Kahnawake's traditional Longhouse told CBC that he wants to see more clarification before they decide to clear the barricade.

Critical moment

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said that the talks did end in what she described as a "breakthrough" that offers hope.

"A partnership needs to feel like a partnership. So that is the goal now," Bennett said.

From left, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos, also known as Frank Alec, and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser address the media in Smithers, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But Cullen said positions were very strong on both sides of the talks.

He said anybody suggesting there are "quick and easy" fixes for complex Indigenous rights issues that have existed for generations is "not paying attention."

Wet'suwet'en leaders told stories about how they had to fight in court to prove the existence of their language and culture, Cullen said.

"It was powerful. All of that stirs some strong emotions," he said.

"I'm praying for calm because it's such a critical moment in the conversation between all of these groups. But I frankly don't know. I don't know how people will interpret this."

Bonnie George hopes the progress made at the talks helps calm the "chaos and confusion" that she has seen escalate racism, hatred and fear across the country.

George, a matriarchal leader of the Wet'suwet'en, a former Coastal GasLink employee and a pipeline proponent, was present at the talks, but wasn't party to the final details of the accord. 

"I am absolutely excited to look forward, and nervous at the same time, to see and hear what's in the agreement," she said. 

Coastal GasLink issued a statement Sunday saying that the company plans to move forward, based on permits in place. Construction on the pipeline project resumed Monday morning with no safety concerns, the company told CBC in an email on Monday.

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend