The Sunday Magazine

'Reconciliation cannot be achieved at gunpoint': B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip on Wet'suwet'en stand-off

Where there are plans for pipelines in this country, there are protests. The latest flashpoint: the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, explains his support for the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation who oppose the pipeline, and he addresses questions about the laws and the rights of Indigenous people.
Police wheel a person away, taking them into custody, on day three of arrests over the Coastal Gaslink pipeline injunction. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC News)

It's an-all-too familiar story in Canada: Indigenous communities facing down a pipeline, along with heated debates about what constitutes meaningful consultation and consent.

At the centre of the latest dispute is a natural gas pipeline passing through northwestern British Columbia. It's a multi-billion dollar project, touted to be the largest private sector investment in Canadian history. The company behind the pipeline, Coastal GasLink, has signed agreements with the province and 20 First Nations, including five of the six band councils in the Wet'suwet'en nation.

But construction has been stalled because of opposition from Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who insist that no pipelines can run through their territory without their consent.

This is a dispute about more than a gas pipeline. The conflict goes to the heart of the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous Peoples. 

And it's a conflict that has sent shockwaves across the country. Last week, the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction ordering the Wet'suwet'en and their supporters to allow Coastal GasLink to do its work. They arrested dozens on the territory.

In response, acts of civil disobedience disrupted life across Canada: blockades shutting down all rail traffic, protests blocking the Port of Vancouver and Deltaport, and Indigenous youth occupying the steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria. 

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is the President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. He spoke to Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, about the laws and the rights of Indigenous people. Here are some highlights from their conversation. Chief Phillip's comments have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of the B.C. Indian Chiefs addresses a news conference in Vancouver, on January 15, 2020. The Grand Chief, along with others, held a press conference regarding legal complaints filed against the RCMP Exclusion Zone in Wet'suwet'en. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Why do you think this particular pipeline has struck such a nerve?

I think we're at a crossroads here in Canada, when one considers the unequivocal adoption by the previous Trudeau government of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, during the last federal election, Prime Minister Trudeau committed to enshrine the UN Declaration in federal legislation. Here in British Columbia, the provincial government has in fact passed Bill 41 unanimously through the legislature, which fully embraces the UN Declaration. It made a very bold and historic promise a few weeks ago in the legislature to the effect that all laws in British Columbia would be harmonized with the principles of the UN Declaration.

There was great celebration, great optimism and hope, that at long last we would have a path forward. 

However, because of tremendous pressure from industry and business, the Horgan government bowed to that pressure and began to make statements that, regardless of the issue of unfulfilled consultations with the hereditary leadership, these projects were going to go forward — both the Coastal GasLink pipeline, as well as the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

You raised the question of hereditary chiefs' governance. Explain, if you could, how that system works. 

The hereditary system is deeply rooted in the culture and the language and the oral history of the Wet'suwet'en people. It literally goes back thousands of years. Their governance and all of their decisions are made in a very open fashion in the Feast Hall, where the people are invited in to witness the discussion and decision. 

What's happening here in British Columbia is both the federal and provincial governments, as well as to the corporate community, so to speak, are hiding behind the band councils which are constructs of the Indian Act. And generally speaking, band councils have jurisdiction over reserve lands — programs, services, infrastructure and so on. The hereditary chiefs, on the other hand, have authority and jurisdiction over the vast expanse of territory. And again their laws and stewardship of those lands is deeply enshrined in the culture, the language and the traditions. That is not being recognised.

But the hereditary chiefs are not elected, right?

No, again, [they are] deeply rooted in the culture and the traditions.

What I find it difficult to understand is that you say their claim to authority goes back thousands of years. Do the elected band councils not have any authority?

They have authority over the reserve land system, which are small postage stamps within the very vast territory — literally hundreds and hundreds of square kilometres of territory.

But the company has made agreements with many of these band councils, right? 

Yes, and if you look at that a little bit closer, a lot of those band councils aren't even on or adjacent to the pipeline route. It's simply a number of communities that have been approached and have been offered lucrative consideration for involving themselves in supporting the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs chop wood for a support camp just outside of Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Thursday January 9, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

There are a number of First Nations people and others who say that the pipeline would bring enormous financial benefits to people in the area, in terms of jobs and resources. Do you not agree with that?

No, I don't agree with that. The natural gas market globally has completely tanked. The prognosis for natural gas and LNG is very bleak. There are enormous capitalisation costs of getting these projects up and running. And globally speakin,g there are other countries that are light years ahead of Canada and particularly British Columbia. So I think it's not economically or financially viable. And yet governments are riding this hobby horse to create an illusory appearance that there's great job creation opportunities. It's not true. 

The company has tried to meet with the hereditary chiefs but they've refused to meet. Why is that? 

Well, again — the company and TMX Kinder Morgan — it's a very colonial, neo-colonial approach. They enter into a territory of interest, vis-a-vis a large-scale resource development, and they begin a very divisive process of attempting to create the public appearance of support for their projects. And they go far beyond the footprint of the project itself to sign on band councils with offers of money and promises. You do not achieve thorough, meaningful, deep consultation by the divide-and-rule tactics of the corporations.

They've made the same mistake time and time again. And that's why we find ourselves at rail blockades, highway blockades, occupation of federal and provincial government buildings and so on.

On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP enforced an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge. Fourteen people arrested that day have had contempt proceedings dropped. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Premier Horgan seems to go on about this question of "the rule of law." But there are two, as I take it, parallel and perhaps irreconcilable rules of law. One is the Aboriginal law, which has been confirmed in the Constitution and by the courts and the other is Canadian law. How can those two things be brought together? Or does Aboriginal law supersede Canadian law?

I think you have asked and answered your own question. The challenge here is to move beyond public platitudes and eloquent rhetoric about the intention of implementing the United Nations Declaration, both federally and provincially. It has to be followed through with the work of legislative reform, policy development and rules and regulations that stipulate very clearly how the entire population — both hereditary and elected band council — are able to participate in an exercise to register their support or disapproval of large-scale resource development projects.

We're not there yet. And again, corporations and governments attempt to take the shortcut and we find ourselves in the courtrooms, we find ourselves on the land, upholding and defending Indigenous law. 

I've talked to many people in the last four or five years about the conditions on reserves. You know them better than I do. Isn't it possible that the financial return from this pipeline and others, or whatever major resource exploitation projects that come along, could be used to help your people?

Again, that's a fallacy. The harsh reality is these large-scale resource development projects feature an economic blip, so to speak. There's a short period where there are a lot of jobs available. One of my sons worked on the Southern Crossing project and I think he was engaged for three or four weeks, and after that the pipeline was in the ground and the show had moved on. And that was the end of the benefits flowing from that. 

It's the corporations themselves that benefit from these projects. It's not the rank and file in our communities.

But isn't that the case of every construction project? That they do come to an end?

Well, there's an illusion out there that with the Trans Mountain Expansion Project and the Coastal GasLink line that somehow the Indigenous people get up, pack their lunch in the morning and go off to the pipeline. And that continues on for 30 or 40 years. That's not the case. It's a matter of weeks and the project is finished and the structural poverty that they began with is still there after the pipeline or whatever project has moved on. So it's boom and bust. It represents a false economy.

Demonstrators rally at the B.C. Legislature to support Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs on Feb. 11, 2019. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

What do you think the long term impact of this dispute is going to be, in terms of Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada?

As I said on the steps of the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday, reconciliation cannot be achieved at gunpoint. And we cannot achieve reconciliation by throwing matriarchs and elders and children in jail. We cannot achieve reconciliation by choppering in paramilitary RCMP forces in full battle gear, surrounding encampments. It was absolutely shades of Vietnam, what happened up on Wet'suwet'en territory. 

I can tell you, if choppers start landing in your backyard and teams of heavily-armed police start running through your front yard and dragging you out of your home, you'd be a little upset. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.