Wet'suwet'en agreement outlines steps for transferring control of territory to traditional leadership

The memorandum of understanding between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, British Columbia and Ottawa sets a roadmap for transferring the jurisdiction of their territory to their traditional governance, according to a copy of the document obtained by CBC News. 

Jurisdictional discussions to cover revenue sharing, water, fish, land and resources

The majority of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. still oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project running through their traditional territory. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A draft memorandum of understanding [MOU] between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, British Columbia and the federal government establishes a roadmap for transferring jurisdiction over their territory to their traditional governance — giving hereditary chiefs significant sway over any future resource development — according to a copy of the document obtained by CBC News.

The agreement comes following a dispute between hereditary and elected leaders over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which prompted weeks of solidarity protests and rail stoppages that paralyzed parts of Canada's railway system and undermined the economy.

The draft MOU doesn't resolve the ongoing opposition to the construction of the natural gas pipeline through unceded Wet'suwet'en land. Most hereditary chiefs still reject the project, but the agreement aims to clarify one of the main issues raised by the conflict: who speaks for the Wet'suwet'en people going forward.

RCMP enforce an injunction on a Wet'suwet'en protest camp opposing the construction of a $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline through unceded Indigenous land. (Jesse Winter/VICE)

The document is to be released publicly after it's virtually signed by all three parties on May 14, according to the B.C. government.

The MOU sets out a three-month timeframe to negotiate legal recognition of the Wet'suwet'en Houses as a governing body and a six-month timeframe to negotiate the transfer of jurisdiction over their 22,000 square kilometre territory in northern B.C.

There will be no impact on existing rights and land interests until jurisdiction is transferred to the Wet'suwet'en, the document said.

The areas under discussion in the jurisdictional talks include revenue-sharing, "fair and just compensation," water, fish, lands and resources, child and family wellness, Wet'suwet'en Nation reunification and "such other areas the Wet'suwet'en propose," the document said.

'What is the rush?'

The MOU said jurisdiction will be transferred once details are ironed out over Aboriginal and Crown title, which include "transparency, accountability and … mechanisms to remedy and address grievances pertaining to shared and exclusive jurisdiction."

The document also said that the Wet'suwet'en need to clarify their governance structure, systems and laws through ratification by the Wet'suwet'en.

Elected Wet'suwet'en band council leaders, supported by Conservative MPs, said they want to sort out governance issues before the MOU is signed and are calling for a delay.

"That's like signing an agreement to buy a car and negotiating the price later," said Chief Dan George of Ts'il Kaz Koh First Nation, also known as the Burns Lake Band, which is one of five Wet'suwet'en First Nations that have signed deals with Coastal GasLink.

"That's kind of backwards."

Chief Dan George of Ts'il Kaz Koh First Nation is calling for a delay to the signing of the MOU between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, Canada and British Columbia. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

George accuses the hereditary leadership of trying to rush Wet'suwet'en members into approving a draft accord that was reached with Ottawa and the B.C. government on Feb. 29, and then approved by the Wet'suwet'en clans last month.

George also claims the hereditary chiefs tried to push for a vote during a clan meeting on the MOU in early March, adding he stopped it from happening since the meeting was taking place in his reserve's gym.

"We don't know where we stand," George said.

"If they [hereditary leaders] get this title and rights over our lands, which is part of my territory — not all of it — it has huge implications for my band members."

Another elected leader, Maureen Luggi of Wet'suwet'en Nation, said she was "bewildered" to hear the MOU was approved by the clans.

"We're not understanding what is the rush here," Luggi said. "What is the reason that we're not doing things properly?"

On March 11, Luggi said she invited traditional leaders to a full house community meeting to discuss the draft MOU. Luggi claims it was presented in PowerPoint and attendees were not allowed to receive copies.

Luggi said she wanted to invite the hereditary chiefs back, but by then the COVID-19 pandemic had struck and their offices were closed, and there was little to no communication about the draft MOU afterwards.

"We are interested in reconciliation agreements," Luggi said. "We are interested in negotiations for Aboriginal rights and title, and the manner in which it's being performed right now is unacceptable and government needs to understand that they have a lot of explaining to do with the Wet'suwet'en people."

Speaking to reporters after in-person meetings in Smithers, B.C., in early March, from left: federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relation Carolyn Bennett; Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos, also known as Frank Alec; and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Three Conservative MPs issued a statement on May 4 accusing the federal government of "sidelining" the Wet'suwet'en people and their elected chiefs.

"This secret deal negotiated by the Trudeau government is going to divide the Wet'suwet'en community further and goes against true reconciliation," said the statement signed by Jamie Schmale, critic for Crown-Indigenous Relations, Gary Vidal, critic for Indigenous Services, and Bob Zimmer, critic for Northern Affairs and Northern Economic Development Agency.

Feds say there's 'more work to do' 

An official in the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations told CBC News the government needs to know all Wet'suwet'en members had the opportunity to participate in the consultation before approving the final stage, but that's not necessary for ratification of the MOU.

"This MOU is an important step in our work to rebuild our relationship with the Wet'suwet'en and towards implementing rights and title, but we know there is more work to do," said a department spokesperson in an emailed statement.

"The MOU moved through Wet'suwet'en governance protocols, and we respect the community's process. They are best placed to speak to the process."

Protesters in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs protest outside the Victoria legislature. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

CBC has reached out to the Office of the Wet'suwet'en for comment, but has not heard back.

Scott Fraser, B.C.'s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said the MOU is the start of a negotiation process to begin resolving matters around rights and title to avoid future conflicts. 

"Questions around jurisdiction and funding and many other matters will be important conversations that need to be had at the negotiating table," Fraser wrote in an emailed statement.

"It is for the Wet'suwet'en people to resolve their own governance."

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Fraser spoke to the concerned elected chiefs on Tuesday and did not commit to pushing back the date of the MOU signing.

A meeting is scheduled for Thursday between the elected and hereditary chiefs.

"I don't see why the government gave them this because this has got nothing to do with what the protests across Canada started from," George said.

"Those issues are not resolved. They can set up roadblocks again and do it again, and that's what I'm worried about."


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.