The House

Legal divide lies behind Wet'suwet'en pipeline protest, expert says

Behind the standoff between pipeline company Coastal GasLink and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs lies a deeper divide — a clash between Canadian laws and those set by First Nations — says one legal scholar.

Clash between Canadian and Indigenous law at root of Coastal GasLink impasse

Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and those who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station just outside of Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C. on January 8. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Behind the standoff between pipeline company Coastal GasLink and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. lies a deeper divide, says one legal scholar: a clash between Canadian laws and those set by First Nations.

"The complication is that it's necessary within Canadian law to go to Canadian court and get them to ... stamp their approval on the claim that you're making," Gordon Christie, director of the Indigenous Legal Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, told CBC Radio's The House.

"But Wet'suwet'en have Indigenous title. They've been owners of their land since time immemorial. We still have to settle the matter as to how Canadian law and Indigenous law is supposed to co-exist."

Conflict between Coastal GasLink and the Wet'suwet'en people first came to a head in northern B.C. one year ago, when protesters began setting up checkpoints to prevent the company from working on a pipeline project on their traditional territory.

The natural gas pipeline — which has approval from the province and the nation's elected band council — is to run from B.C.'s Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat.

A legal scholar explains the latest developments in the dispute between the Wet’suwet’en people and Coastal GasLink... and what it means for the government's promise to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 8:21

The Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling in 1997 confirming that the Wet'suwet'en had never given up title to their lands. The top court's recommendation to send the case back to trial was never followed.

"The nature of the title that they hold within Canadian law would have been settled through trial," Christie said.

Tensions were stoked earlier this week when the RCMP set up a new checkpoint blocking access to Wet'suwet'en territory on a service road leading to the company's work site and three camps occupied by protesters.

B.C. Premier John Horgan also came in for criticism over comments he made Monday backing an injunction Coastal GasLink obtained in December, which declared protests near the construction site must end.

But critics say both Ottawa and the B.C. government's commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) goes against the pipeline's approval because hereditary chiefs did not consent — and seeing UNDRIP become a meaningful reality could be a long way off.

"Nothing has happened immediately in B.C. with the legislation becoming ratified recently," Christie said. "I think what we're looking at is just a very long process [with] the province and the federal government."