British Columbia

After feast hall and Zoom meetings, Wet'suwet'en chiefs set to negotiate rights and title agreement

The First Nation hereditary chiefs who earlier this year were at the centre of protests over a natural gas pipeline in northwestern B.C. say they are ready to begin talks about rights and title over their traditional lands.

But elected leaders say they weren't included and want talks postponed

Speaking to reporters March 1 after talks in Smithers, B.C., from left: federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett; Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos, and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The First Nation hereditary chiefs who earlier this year were at the centre of protests over a natural gas pipeline in northwestern B.C. say they are ready to begin talks about rights and title over their traditional lands.

The talks won't address the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which has continued to move forward, but are aimed at answering some questions the controversy raised, in particular, who speaks for the Wet'suwet'en people.

Throughout the Coastal GasLink dispute, which saw blockades and rallies spring up across the country, there has been a difference of opinion between elected band councils who signed on to the project, and hereditary house chiefs who largely opposed it. The pipeline is being constructed through Wet'suwet'en territory to feed a liquefied natural gas project near Kitimat on B.C.'s north coast.

But hours after the chiefs, B.C. government and federal government announced plans to move forward with negotiations, five elected chiefs said they have been cut out of the process, and want talks postponed until after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

"The federal government, the provincial government and the hereditary chiefs have completely ignored many clan members and elected chiefs," said a joint statement from the elected chiefs of five Wet'suwet'en bands.

"These discussions have not included openness and respect for all parties," the statement said.

Earlier, a hereditary chief expressed optimism that an agreement can be reached.

Hagwilnegh, also known Ron Mitchell, head chief of G'en Egh La Yex (House of Many Eyes), said he wants the new agreement to bring all Wet'suwet'en together.

"We have to start working together, as we did in the past," he said. "The elected officials are all Wet'suwet'en. They're all born into a house and a clan. So when we come into a feast hall … they are recognized as clan members.

"We don't differentiate the two different governments in a feast hall."

Hagwilnegh said he had taken the agreement to his house members first in physical gatherings and then, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, through virtual meetings on platforms such as Zoom.

But the elected chiefs claim many members were left out of the process. As a result, they were unwilling to support the tentative deal. And they say talks and consultation with all members should resume once provincial physical distancing regulations are lifted.

Hagwilnegh said the negotiations would go "a step beyond" what was laid out in the landmark 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa court decision which acknowledged Indigenous title in the Canadian legal system.

The decision stemmed from a 1984 case launched by the leaders of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations, who took the provincial government to court to establish jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of land and water in northwest British Columbia. 

However, the ruling did not lay out exactly how jurisdiction over that title worked in practice, which has led to disputes such as the question of whether projects like Coastal GasLink need approval from the hereditary chiefs.

Hagwilnegh said he is disappointed it has taken so long to reach the next step in the process.

"This should have happened 22 years ago," he said.

A joint statement attributed to the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser and federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, says negotiations will move forward between "three equal governments" once the memorandum, laying out the process for the talks, is signed at a virtual ceremony on May 14, in order to follow physical distancing guidelines during COVID-19.

The provincial government said details of the memorandum will be released after the signing, and an "expedited" negotiation process will begin.

Hagwilnegh said negotiations were initially expected to be completed within a year, but given the pandemic, "it may take a little longer than that."