'Shame on them': Dene National Chief condemns police use of force on Wet'suwet'en territory

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says the hereditary chiefs in B.C. have 'every right' to assert their laws on their traditional territory.

Norman Yakeleya says hereditary chiefs in B.C. have 'every right' to assert their laws

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya voiced his support for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs at a news conference in Yellowknife on Wednesday. (Sidney Cohen/CBC News)

The Dene National Chief is declaring his support for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.

"They are the traditional chiefs through their clan system," Norman Yakeleya told reporters in Yellowknife on Wednesday.

"They have every right to protect their territory and they have every right to assert their traditional laws and ceremonies."

Across Canada, Indignenous nations and activists have come out in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that would run through their territory in British Columbia. 

Demonstrations ramped up earlier this month after RCMP raided camps blocking construction on traditional Wet'suwet'en territory while enforcing an injunction order. The camps include the Unist'ot'en Healing Centre.

The hereditary chiefs want the RCMP to leave, and Yakeleya does as well.

'Shame on them'

"They call up the police force. Shame on them. Shame on them. Why are they doing that to the first original people of Canada?" said Yakeleya. "I support the hereditary chiefs 110 per cent."

The $6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline was approved by the B.C. government, and five of the six Wet'suwet'en band councils have agreed to it. But the authority of the band councils comes from the Indian Act, say the hereditary chiefs, while they themselves are following laws that existed before colonization.

Yakeleya said the hereditary chiefs should get the "time and space to work with the elected chiefs and council — but they're the boss."

Yakeleya's news conference on Wednesday came amid demonstrations across Canada. Rail blockades have held up the shipment of goods and the travel of passengers. CN Rail and Via Rail have announced layoffs.

Demonstrators gathered in Yellowknife in January 2019 to protest the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the Wet'suwet'en First Nation in B.C. More demonstrations were held this month outside MP Michael McLeod's office. (Michael Hugall/CBC)

"Aboriginal people can, if they really want, bring Canada to a standstill," said Yakeleya.

"What people now are saying in the news here — there's no food on their shelves, running low on fuel, propane — hey, welcome to our world. This is what's happening in our small communities."

Calls for 'peaceful' protest

In Yellowknife, supporters of the hereditary chiefs have strung banners up around the city and rallied outside the office of Northwest Territories Liberal MP Michael McLeod.

The national chief said the Dene Nation supports "peaceful, productive, calm, protest."

He also said the Northwest Territories is not immune to the more extreme police and protest actions taking place elsewhere in Canada.

Yakeleya said if the government doesn't listen to Indigenous nations on Teck Resources' Frontier oilsands mine, proposed for northern Alberta, it could become "our Wet'suwet'en."

With files from Chantelle Bellrichard, Jorge Barrera and The Canadian Press