A who's who of the Wet'suwet'en pipeline conflict
From outside Wet'suwet'en Nation, conflict over gas pipeline seems complex, but key players have emerged
The conflict over a natural gas pipeline project in northern British Columbia has swelled across the country, drawing intense attention to the Wet'suwet'en Nation.
To outsiders, the organization and the dual Wet'suwet'en power structures can seem confusing, and parsing who has legitimate authority over the decision to support or block the pipeline can be challenging.
Along the pipeline's route, 20 elected First Nation councils have signed benefit agreements, but across the country, Indigenous groups have taken part in demonstrations and blockades to protest the project.
Here's a guide to some of the main Wet'suwet'en people who have emerged as leaders, spokespeople, advocates and opponents of the project, and how they fit into the nation's elected, hereditary and corporate organizational structures.
Note that there's the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, which has an elected chief and council, and the broader Wet'suwet'en Nation, which includes both the elected bands within the colonial system of governance and a traditional hereditary clan system, which has responsibility for a broader unceded territory covering 22,000 square kilometres.
IN FAVOUR OF THE PIPELINE
Five of the six elected band councils within Wet'suwet'en Nation have signed benefit agreements with the pipeline company, Coastal GasLink (CGL), a subsidiary of TC Energy. (Hagwilget Nation is not on the pipeline route and has not signed any agreements.)
The elected councils, which also include Witset First Nation, Skin Tyee Nation, the Nee Tahi Buhn Band, Ts'il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band) and the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, represent First Nations on reserves created by the federal government under the Indian Act.
Karen Ogen-Toews is a former elected chief of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation. She signed one of the agreements to approve the pipeline, and remains a vocal supporter of the plan.
"In my heart I know I'm doing the right thing. I've done the right thing for our people and my heart is in the right place," Ogen-Toews told CBC News. "If our people are living in poverty, the way to overcome it is through proper training, trades, education and a job."
She's now CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, a collection of First Nations that are taking part in and supporting liquefied natural gas developments in B.C.
Troy Young runs a Wet'suwet'en-owned company. He's the general manager and director of Kyah Resources Inc., which is owned by a Witset First Nation Limited Partnership.
Kyah Resources has a contract to provide pipeline-related work, including clearing, heli-logging, road building, security and first aid services, according to the B.C. Supreme Court injunction decision.
Young's comments were included in the injunction decision. He argued a delay in the pipeline construction "would have a severe impact on the local Wet'suwet'en community and the Wet'suwet'en people."
Gloria George, Darlene Glaim and Theresa Tait-Day
Gloria George, Darlene Glaim and Theresa Tait-Day were stripped of their hereditary titles in recent years after creating the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition. They held titles in Tsaiyex (Sun House), Cassyex (Grizzly House) and Kwen Beegh Yex (House Beside the Fire), respectively, though their loss of title remains in dispute.
Tait-Day said the coalition was formed to set up a process for the hereditary groups to consider projects on Wet'suwet'en territory and negotiate agreements, according to the injunction decision.
The coalition has a board with five members, including George, Glaim and Tait-Day and two others representing all five of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary clans.
"A few house chiefs cannot make decisions for our nation. Everyone in our nation is equal and has a voice that deserves to be heard," said Tait-Day in an affadivit filed in B.C Supreme Court.
According to the Environmental Assessment Office, the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition was not among the list of Indigenous groups CGL had to consult with on the project.
AGAINST THE PIPELINE
While the elected band councils have agreed to the pipeline construction, the hereditary chiefs have maintained opposition to the project.
They assert Wet'suwet'en territory was never ceded to the federal government, and that they have responsibility over it and to the Wet'suwet'en people who aren't confined to the pockets of reserve governed by the elected chiefs and councils.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed Aboriginal title rights in Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia, a decision that recognized Wet'suwet'en have a system of laws that predates colonialism.
The hereditary chiefs and their respective houses are nearly all represented by the Office of the Wet'suwet'en for the purposes of consultation with CGL, with the exception of Yex T'sa Wilk'us (Dark House) of Gilseyhu Clan (Big Frog Clan).
The Wet'suwet'en Nation is organized into five clans. Within each clan, there are two or three houses. It's at the house level that chiefs hold hereditary title. Each of the 13 houses also has various chiefs below the head chief, including wing chiefs, sub-chiefs and alternate chiefs.
Currently, four of the house hereditary chief positions are vacant, leaving nine hereditary chiefs. Eight of the hereditary chiefs have clearly opposed the pipeline and this group signed an eviction letter to CGL in early January ordering workers off unceded Wet'suwet'en territory.
The chiefs who signed the letter are:
- Knedebeas (Warner William), Yex T'sa Wilk'us (Dark House)
- Woos (Frank Alec), Cassyex (Grizzly House)
- Madeek (Jeff Brown), Anaskaski (Where It Lies Blocking the Trail)
- Gisday'wa (Fred Tom), Kaiyexweniits (House in the Middle of Many)
- Hagwilnegh (Ron Mitchell), G'en Egh La Yex (House of Many Eyes)
- Na'Moks (John Ridsdale), Tsa K'en Yex (Rafters on Beaver House)
- Smogelgem (Warner Naziel), Tsaiyex (Sun House)
- Kloum Khun (Alphonse Gagnon), Medzeyez (Owl House)
Samooh (Herb Naziel), hereditary chief of Kayex (Birchbark House), doesn't appear to have voiced a position on the pipeline and did not sign the eviction notice.
Chief Na'Moks has frequently served as spokesperson for the hereditary chiefs, and has thus risen to prominence in media coverage of the issue.
"We do expect [RCMP and Coastal GasLink] to meet and discuss things," said Na'Moks in early January in the face of an injunction order and enforcement by police.
"We need them to understand that what they are doing is destroying our lands, our ecological sites, our burial sites," he said. "They have no comprehension of how important it is to our people."
Chief Woos has also played the role of spokesperson for the hereditary chiefs, especially when the issue in question involves the land of the Grizzly House.
Woos was part of the delegation that travelled to Ontario and Quebec to meet with members of other First Nations who have established solidarity rail blockades.
In a press conference after the meeting on Jan. 21, Woos spoke out against the police enforcement of the court-ordered injunction against the blockades on Wet'suwet'en land.
"We demand the remote detachment community-industry service office established by the RCMP on Wet'suwet'en territory without our consent be immediately removed, and that the RCMP are completely removed from our territory and cease patrols on our lands. Out means out," said Woos.
"We demand that all CGL activities cease within Wet'suwet'en territory while nation-to-nation talks are going," he said.
Chief Smogelgem is central to one of the three blockades, or checkpoints created in opposition to the pipeline. Along with the title Smogelgem of Tsaiyex (Sun House), Warner Naziel holds the hereditary title of Toghestiy of Medzeyex (Owl House).
He is one of only two named defendants in the injunction against the Wet'suwet'en blockades along the pipeline route.
Naziel helped set up an original blockade in 2012, according to the B.C. Supreme Court injunction decision, and assisted the emerging group known as Unist'ot'en with trapping, hunting, gathering and logistical support.
Freda Huson has served as spokesperson for Yex T'sa Wilk'us (Dark House) and Unist'ot'en. She holds the hereditary title Howilhkat within Dark House.
Unist'ot'en is a camp created by Wet'suwet'en pipeline opponents to strategically reoccupy land along the pipeline route. It's associated with Dark House.
Huson, along with Naziel, is named in the injunction as a central character in the opposition to the CGL pipeline.
Molly Wickham is a member of the Gitdumden clan who speaks for the group behind the Gidim'ten Access Point at 44 km, along the Morice Forest Service Road. The B.C. Supreme Court ordered an injunction barring people from obstructing CGL workers at the camp, resulting in 14 arrests on Jan. 9.
Soon afterward, Wickham coordinated the construction of a new camp at the 27-kilometre mark near the RCMP checkpoint, as directed by the hereditary chiefs. She is seen in a video posted on social media Jan. 19 appealing for help from supporters.
"Come out, be self-sustaining. Be dressed for the weather. Come to 27 km for a day. Come to 27 km for a few days. Come and support us on this front line on Wet'suwet'en territory," said Wickham as a generator hummed in the background.
According to the injunction decision, Wickham made public statements that the people occupying the camps were doing it to prevent CGL from completing the work required to get permits and authorizations, "and to ultimately prevent the pipeline project from being completed."
Rob Alfred is identified in court documents as being associated with a group calling itself Tsayu Land Defenders, which established one of the Wet'suwet'en camps along the pipeline right-of-way.
Alfred holds the hereditary title Ste ohn Tsiy under Chief Na'Moks in Tsa K'en Yex (Rafters on Beaver House), and is active on Twitter using the handle @showmekittys.
"This isn't just about a pipeline. It's about Indigenous title," Alfred told CBC News. "We wouldn't have this conflict if the governments would step up and deal with that issue. I do wholeheartedly believe the project won't be completed as is."
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With files from Andrew Kurjata and Tina Lovgreen