British Columbia

Pipeline construction paused as Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs prepare to meet federal, provincial ministers

Construction on a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. has been paused for two days as Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs prepare to meet with provincial and federal ministers in hopes of resolving an impasse over the First Nation's land and title rights.

Coastal GasLink pauses work in Morice River area for 2 days to 'facilitate' talks

The entrance to the Unist'ot'en camp is seen on the Morice River Service Road road near Houston, B.C., on Jan. 17, 2019. RCMP and Coastal GasLink have agreed to pause patrols and construction in the area as Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs prepare to meet with provincial and federal ministers to discuss land and title rights on Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Construction on a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. has been paused for two days as Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs prepare to meet with provincial and federal ministers in hopes of resolving an impasse over the First Nation's land and title rights.

Chief Na'Moks, one of several hereditary chiefs opposed to construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline across Wet'suwet'en traditional territories, said the chiefs agreed to the meeting after TC Energy said it would stop work in the Morice River area near Houston, B.C.

"The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs thank our supporters for their tireless dedication and now the chiefs need time to have discussions with B.C. and Canada in an atmosphere of wiggus (respect)," read a statement from the Office of the Wet'suwet'en on Thursday.

RCMP have also agreed to stop patrols on the Morice Forest Service Road while the meeting is underway, a statement confirmed.

Chief Na'Moks, a spokesperson for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, said a meeting with the provincial and federal governments is set to begin Thursday afternoon at a hotel in Smithers, B.C., and continue Friday. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The long-sought meeting between the ministers and hereditary chiefs is set to be held at a hotel in Smithers, B.C., and continue Friday. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett arrived in the northwestern town on Thursday morning.

B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser will arrive from Victoria in the afternoon. Earlier Thursday, the minister said he was eager to find a "path forward."

"Finding a peaceful resolution to the situation we've found ourselves in over the last weeks is key and paramount, but it is deeper than that," he said at the B.C. Legislature before leaving to fly north.

Fraser stayed in the provincial capital on Thursday morning for a budget vote.

"The issue of rights and title — we are committed with the Wet'suwet'en people to get that straightened out and to be able to recognize those," he said.

B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser stayed at the provincial legislature on Thursday morning for a budget vote before flying to Smithers to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

The talks on Thursday and Friday will be a preliminary round of discussions. Whether the chiefs and governments decide to proceed with further meetings will depend on what progress is made.

The statement from the Wet'suwet'en office said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan declined their invitations to meet "at this time."

Rail and road blockades have sprung up across the country for weeks as a show of support for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the $6.6-billion pipeline project. Dozens of people have been arrested in B.C. and Ontario as police and RCMP enforce injunction orders at various demonstrations.

Demonstrators in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline project in B.C. were arrested after blocking rail lines in Toronto on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The wave of solidarity began after RCMP arrested a number of people on Wet'suwet'en territory earlier this month for violating an injunction by blocking Coastal GasLink construction.

Minister Bennett said she, like Fraser, was keen to move forward.

"We are very interested in working with them on the issues of rights and title and the kinds of things that really will matter to the future of the nation," Bennett told reporters after her flight landed on Thursday. "I'm very interested in accelerating that work."

There was word late Wednesday the meeting had fallen through, but Na'Moks said he was told the cancellation was a "miscommunication.''

"Miscommunication, I don't know how that would happen," said Na'Moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale. "Our executive director was called and given that message, and no reasoning why it was back on.

"We're pleased with having the talks back on. Our willingness has always been there."

Coastal GasLink agreed to a two-day pause of construction to "facilitate" discussions on Thursday and Friday, an emailed statement said.

"We fully support the efforts of all parties and are committed to finding a peaceful resolution to the current issues," the statement read.

RCMP said members of the Wet'suwet'en Rangers will patrol the Morice River Service Road during the meetings. The Mounties' statement said the rangers have agreed to ensure the road remains clear. 

With files from CBC Radio-Canada's Philippe Leblanc and The Canadian Press

now