Indigenous

Hereditary chiefs say no access to Wet'suwet'en territory until B.C. addresses title issues

It's been one year since a conflict between a pipeline company and Wet'suwet'en people came to a head in the first nation's traditional territory in northern B.C., and tensions are again on the rise.

'The world is watching, the United Nations is watching,' says hereditary chief Na'moks

On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP enforced an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

It's been one year since a conflict between a pipeline company and Wet'suwet'en people came to a head in the first nation's traditional territory in northern B.C., and tensions are again on the rise.

At a news conference Tuesday, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs demanded the province suspend all permits for the Coastal GasLink pipeline effective immediately, saying there will be no access to their territory without their consent. 

"The world is watching; the United Nations is watching. This is not just the Wet'suwet'en," said hereditary chief Na'moks, citing a recent written directive from a United Nations committee working to end racism. 

After a B.C. judge issued an interlocutory injunction last week saying pipeline opponents could not block Coastal GasLink from accessing the area, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs sent an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink citing Wet'suwet'en trespass laws, ordering its staff and contractors to leave the territory.

"We are the title holders, and the province must address the issue of our title if they want to gain access to our lands," said Na'moks.

"We are the authority, we are the decision makers. They only have assumed and presumed authority on our lands."

Coastal GasLink said in a statement Tuesday before the news conference that it intends to continue with construction activities on the right-of-way but will "delay re-mobilization" at the site under dispute "while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible." 

The company said it has requested a meeting with Wet'suwet'en hereditary leadership.

Separately, government remains engaged with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, in government-to-government discussions that seek to meaningfully advance reconciliation. This work is broader than any specific project."

Want RCMP out

"We believe that dialogue is preferable to confrontation," the company wrote. 

The hereditary chiefs are also calling for the RCMP, which set up a temporary detachment last year near the area of the dispute, to be pulled out of the territory.

B.C.'s Ministry of Energy expressed hope, in a statement to CBC News, that "all parties involved can find a peaceful resolution soon."

The ministry went on to say the province continues to engage in separate government-to-government discussions with the hereditary chiefs, "that seek to meaningfully advance reconciliation."

But the hereditary chiefs said on Tuesday they're not interested in meeting with Coastal GasLink and instead want to meet with the decision makers, the provincial and federal governments, and police. 

TC Energy's Coastal GasLink project is meant to move natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the coast, where a liquefied natural gas plant is scheduled for construction.

An interim court injunction in December 2018 ordered people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink from gaining access to a remote stretch of forest service road and a bridge, where Wet'suwet'en members had set up checkpoints on their traditional territory, which sits about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C.

Last January, RCMP moved in and arrested 14 people at a fortified checkpoint.

On Dec. 31, 2019, the interim injunction was replaced by an interlocutory one after B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church sided with Coastal GasLink in her final ruling in the case, saying the company had met all the legal requirements for such an order. 

The new injunction also includes enforcement provisions.

'Scalable approach'

In a statement to CBC News, the RCMP said its priority is "to assess the situation and to engage with industry, Indigenous communities and government to facilitate a resolution that ensures any protest activity is lawful, peaceful and safe."

The RCMP said a senior commander has been in contact with all parties involved and that police will "take the actions necessary, using a carefully measured and scalable approach, should there be any criminal activities that pose a threat to individuals or property."

Coastal GasLink has signed benefit agreements with 20 band council governments along the route of the project. Wet'suwet'en hereditary leadership says band councils do not have authority over land outside of the reserve boundaries.

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs will hold a news conference Tuesday. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

"The Wet'suwet'en people are deeply divided with respect to either opposition to or support for the Pipeline Project," wrote Church in her Dec. 31 ruling.

The Dec. 31 court ruling acknowledged submissions from the Wet'suwet'en on asserting their law on the territory, but said "the law does not recognize any right to blockade and obstruct the plaintiff from pursuing lawfully authorized activities." 

Since last year's enforcement actions, an increasing number of sites have been reoccupied by the Wet'suwet'en on different parts of the territory. Recently, trees were felled along the Morice Forest Service road, kilometres away from the re-established Gidimt'en camp. The route is currently impassable.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story attributed the statement from B.C.'s Ministry of Energy to Michelle Mungall, the energy minister.
    Jan 07, 2020 10:21 PM ET

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