Politics

Conservative MPs question legitimacy of Wet'suwet'en talks

With time ticking down to the Wet'suwet'en Nation's decision on whether to accept a proposed arrangement on rights and title, questions surfaced during a House of Commons committee meeting in Ottawa today about the legitimacy of the process and the exclusion of elected band leadership.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett says she wants to find a 'durable solution'

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett takes her seat at the House Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee on Tuesday in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

With time ticking down to the Wet'suwet'en Nation's decision on whether to accept a proposed arrangement on rights and title, questions surfaced during a House of Commons committee meeting in Ottawa today about the legitimacy of the process and the exclusion of elected band leadership.

Conservative MPs at the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee pressed Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to explain why elected Wet'suwet'en band chiefs were shut out of recent face-to-face talks in Smithers, B.C., on the proposal.

"If your true desire is really to bring the community together ... and not to create division ... why would you exclude ... leaders in the community from the meeting?" said Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, who told the committee he had spoken to some of the elected Wet'suwet'en chiefs.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller wait to appear before the Indigenous and Northern Affairs committee in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Bennett responded by saying she met with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to discuss rights and title to their territory, not the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline they oppose — which sparked solidarity demonstrations that shut down rail service across the country for weeks.

"The reason I'm here is for a durable solution so this never happens again," Bennett told the committee.

"The rights holders will be at a table with lots of choices at the beginning of a project."

Bennett said she's willing to meet the elected chiefs at any time.

Some Wet'suwet'en leaders still waiting to see proposal

Once Wet'suwet'en people ratify the tentative arrangement, Bennett said, she will fly back to Smithers, B.C. to sign it, but it remains unclear when exactly that will happen.

Following his meeting with Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Services Minister Scott Fraser, Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Woos told reporters that traditional leadership would work on bringing the details back to their houses within the next two weeks.

But days away from that deadline, the president of the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition, Theresa Tait-Day, said she has asked to see the terms of the proposal but has yet to receive a copy.

"The people don't understand the agreement," Tait-Day said.

"Where has it left everything? Nothing has changed except for the division that it has caused by the minister coming and speaking with only five hereditary chiefs and not the community."

Tait-Day said her coalition has received funding from the B.C. government and Coastal GasLink.

Tait-Day was in Ottawa on Tuesday testifying before the House committee. She accused solidarity protesters of "hijacking" her nation and using her people to advance their own agenda. 

Tait-Day is meeting with Bennett on Tuesday evening to express her concerns.

"I'm hoping that we can create an overarching mechanism for making decisions about major projects, because we need to move ahead," she said.

"I don't think you can hammer out a treaty in a few days. That takes a long time."

All of the Wet'suwet'en clans have already had their first round of meetings, which included people on and off the reserves, according to their social media posts.

Ottawa will respect nation's decision

The federal government has not said what its backup plan is in the event the process does not result in an agreement.

"We're letting them have the space to have those conversations," Bennett said after question period on Tuesday.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said an agreement with the Wet'suwet'en people can be used as a model across the country.

Miller said Ottawa will respect the decision the Wet'suwet'en people make, and will continue to work with traditional and elected governments to avoid future conflict.

"What this crisis underlined for us is that we still have a lot of work to go in order to engage with structures that, in some cases, the Canadian government contributed a hundred years ago in destroying."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.