Cross Country Checkup

Indigenous pro-pipeline representative says he won't tell Wet'suwet'en chiefs what to do

Clifford White, a board member of the First Nations LNG Alliance — a group backing the proposed Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline — says it’s up to Wet’suwet’en people to decide how to move forward.

'Totally up to them,' says First Nations LNG Alliance board member Clifford White

Protesters in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia block an Ottawa intersection outside the Prime Minister's Office this week. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A board member of the First Nations LNG Alliance — a group backing the proposed Coastal Gaslink natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. — says it's up to Wet'suwet'en's people to decide how to move forward.

Clifford White is a hereditary leader and former elected chief councillor of the Gitxaala Nation located south of the proposed pipeline terminus in Kitimat on B.C.'s North Coast. He told Cross Country Checkup he wouldn't speak for the Wet'suwet'en Nation's hereditary chiefs.

"We don't speak into another nation, including on this conversation," he said.

The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs are at the centre of an ongoing dispute over the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline which would cut through their traditional territory as it carries natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a liquefied natural gas plant on the coast.

While some of the nation's elected leaders have approved the project, opposition by the hereditary chiefs has led to a shutdown of rail traffic from coast to coast and inspired protests across the country.

White spoke with Checkup host Duncan McCue about why he supports the pipeline and what he makes of the demonstrations.

Here is part of that conversation.

Why do you support the LNG projects and the Coastal GasLink pipeline?

Gitxaala has worked together with our elected chief in council and our hereditary leaders, of which we have 23. 

We've had regular meetings on which way to go. And after a lot of discussion internally, as well as with the province and ... Coastal Gaslink, we came to a consensus that we would support it. 

There was, you know, the debates were held internal. There were a lot of them — frank debates where some people were very concerned about the environment. And, you know, looking at all of those concerns, we decided to support it.

A protester stands between Mohawk Warrior Society flags at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., on Sunday. The protest is in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to an LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

You're both a hereditary chief amongst the Tsimshian [and] you've also served as elected chief in your First Nation. How tricky is that position balancing the two: the elected versus hereditary roles?

Everything that happens within the territory is brought towards our hereditary table by the elected chief in council for discussion. 

Nothing moves forward without the consent of the hereditary leaders. Not only the hereditary leaders, but the elders and community members that come to our regular meetings that are held.

The opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline comes from a group of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who are dealing with a couple hundred kilometres of pipeline that go through their territory. 

So in your view, what say should that group have in the decisions around the broader pipeline?

When it comes to the Wet'suwet'en people and their territory, we leave that totally up to them. 

One of the things that we don't do is from nation to nation, we don't speak into another nation, including on this conversation. I cannot speak into another tribe or another clan or another house leader's territory. 

There's a lot of internal negotiations that go on between the First Nations and the traditional laws and processes.

Protesters in Ottawa last week showing solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

And so your nation is in support. Have you had contact with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who are opposed?

Not for those who have been opposed, but we have had some discussions with them, the hereditary leaders within the Wet'suwet'en territory.

But that's really up to them to decide as to where they want to go, as well as their governance. 

There are Indigenous groups across the country — non-Indigenous people across the country protesting in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en chiefs — and that's why we're seeing the railway lines shut down right now. 

What would you say to them about their protests? 

The reason that they're supporting this is because it is a huge historical piece with regards to the injustices that have been done with First Nations people. 

I strongly believe that Canadians really want to do right by Indigenous people. And as a result of that, you see these roadblocks and the support for Indigenous people. I believe that that's what they're standing up for. 

We are at that crossroads now and it's very new — the new self-determination, the self-government on how we define what our governance is. That's very new.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.