As It Happens

Elected chiefs should have been at the table for Wet'suwet'en deal, says Chief Dan George

Chief Dan George and his community have a decision to make, the results of which could be felt nationwide. 

George says he's hopeful all parties can 'can come together and create a governance system' that works

Dan George, elected chief of the Ts'il Kaz Koh First Nation in B.C., isn't sure Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have his people's best interests at heart. 2:49
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Chief Dan George and his community have a decision to make, the results of which could be felt nationwide. 

George is the elected chief of the Ts'il Kaz Koh First Nation in B.C., one of the First Nations whose members are in the process of deciding whether they support a draft deal over rights and land titles struck between B.C., Ottawa and the Wet'suwet'en's hereditary chiefs.

The proposal brought an end to nationwide protests and blockades over the construction of a Coastal GasLink pipeline on traditional Wet'suwet'en land. 

But George and the other elected chiefs did not have a seat at the negotiating table — and they still haven't seen the details of the deal.

At the heart of the dispute is Indigenous land rights. Coastal GasLink signed an agreement with all 20 First Nations band councils on the pipeline route, but the hereditary chiefs say those councils only have authority over reserve land.

The elected councils are part of a system established by the federal Indian Act, whereas the hereditary chiefs are part of a traditional system of governance that predates colonialism. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Chief George about the Wet'suwet'en governance and why he says no consensus on the pipeline is possible unless all chiefs and the communities they represent are included in the negotiations. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you explain to us who speaks for the Wet'suwet'en people? Is it you and the fellow elected chiefs, or is it the hereditary chiefs who struck this deal?

I've been voted in by Wet'suwet'en people as an elected chief — just like Sandra George who is that hereditary chief. She's been elected in by their community of Witset as their elected chief.

So any of the hereditary chiefs can run for elected positions, and they also get to vote for the elected positions.

But why is it that the hereditary chiefs — and not the elected chiefs, the band council chiefs — why are they at the table making this deal with Ottawa and the province?

My position is that I'm not signing no titling rights agreement. We need to figure out our governance structure within the hereditary chief system first and foremost.

All these protests started because of our governance system. So it must end with our governance system also.

And you, as a band council chief, you have not seen the whole deal that has been struck with the province and the federal government.

I have seen part of it that got leaked out. But I'm not even sure if it's the right one. So I'm not privy to comment on it right now.

But you've only seen parts that have been leaked out. Nothing has been shared with you.

No. They're keeping it confidential until our meeting on Friday.

(CBC News)

This was something that came out of the Supreme Court decision in 1998, isn't it? The establishment of the relationship between these two parts — the hereditary chiefs and the elected band council chiefs. How important is it that that now be resolved in order to move forward?

As elected chiefs, we got to know where our people sit and stand. Because we represent all the clans. We don't represent just one clan. We represent everybody, including hereditary chiefs that reside on our reserves. They get housing from elected chiefs.

Do you feel that the hereditary chiefs who are at the table ... are representing the best interests of your people?

No, I don't think they're representing the best interests of our people.

Also, you got to realize too, there's 13 seats available. There's only six. There's four vacant right now. There's six seats and they only represent three clans. They don't represent all the clans.

If you don't feel that they're representing the best interests of your people, what concerns do you have about what's going on right now?

My concern is really the governance. So if the people are voting for me, who are all Wet'suwet'en, and voted for LNG, that tells you that they're all in support of it already. And that goes with the rest of the bands also.

So what is it like for you as an elected chief, as someone who is accountable to your people, what is this process like for you?

It's very stressful. There's a lot of media calling me all the time and it's very stressful time for all of us.

It's causing some negative discrimination against a lot of First Nations up in northern B.C., especially relevant when you live in small community communities with 5,000 to 7,000 people. It's more relevant in the smaller communities than it is in bigger cities.

And what do you think has been the effect of the call to shut down Canada and the blockades that we have seen from coast to coast?

I think that was bad for Canada and I'm just glad that the blockades have come down. I'd like to thank all the First Nations that have taken the blockades down so that Canada can get back to business.

Wet'suwet'en hereditary leader Chief Woos, also known as Frank Alec, centre, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relation Carolyn Bennett, left, and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser address the media in Smithers, B.C., on March 1. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But do you think that there is lasting fallout from those initiatives?

I think, like I said, it started out with our governance system. That's what started the whole protest. So I think it's got to end with our governance system also.

How do you do that, because right now the hereditary chiefs are in the middle of this. But if you haven't resolved something that many have said has needed to be resolved for years, how you move forward?

It starts with the first meeting that we're having on Friday and we have to figure it out from there.

And how do we move forward together? I'm not sure how we do that until I meet with the hereditary chiefs.

Do you think that there's common ground?

I think there could be common ground. Yes, for sure. But not all the hereditary chiefs are in the system right now. Like I said, there's 13 seats and there's four vacancies.

So you can't have consensus when there's vacancies and not all the chiefs are at the table.

Chief Madeek, also known as Jeff Brown, front left, hereditary leader of the Gidimt'en clan, and Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Namoks John Ridsdale, front right, carry a flag while leading a solidarity march. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Do you support the Coastal GasLink project?

Of course I do. I'm also part of Carrier Sekani [Tribal Council] and we've negotiated a huge deal called Pathways 2.0 with the provincial government, and whether the line goes through or not, we still have this huge agreement.

Since this latest round of this began on that Morice West Forest Service Road and the RCMP moved in on it, this has become an international story. Do you think that there is in any way a silver lining in that a lot of things are moving along because of this, I guess, crisis?

I think the silver lining is creating a governance system that we can work together. ... If we can come together and create a governance system and work together, I think that's the only silver lining that can come out of this.

And how likely is it, do you think, that you'll have that governance system?

I'm not sure the position of the hereditary chiefs until I start meeting with them and where their stance is going to be.

Do you think it would have helped if you had been able to be part of the negotiations and talks that have been going on?

Yes, I think the province and the federal government were wrong to go in there without us elected chiefs because that's what started it and that's what's going to end it.


Written by John McGill and Kevin Robertson. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.