Federal cabinet ministers are facing pointed questions about why elected band chiefs and women of the Wet’suwet’en nation who support a disputed natural-gas pipeline in British Columbia were not in meetings aimed at reducing tensions.
At a parliamentary committee Tuesday, Conservative MPs pressed Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller over the meetings and how band-council chiefs who had signed deals for a project they believed would benefit their communities felt shut out of the talks.
Hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation in northern B.C. oppose the route the pipeline would take through their traditional territory and their protests sparked solidarity blockades on roads and rail lines across the country for weeks.
Only the voices of those who are against the Coastal GasLink pipeline were part of the late-February meetings in B.C., said Conservative critic Jamie Schmale.
“Given the issue of title has effects on the Coastal GasLink project as well as the elected bodies within the nation, would it not have made sense to include those elected members in the meetings, rather than creating divisions within the community?”
Two weeks ago, Bennett and B.C.’s Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser met with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Three days of meetings resulted in a tentative deal on land and title rights among the federal and provincial governments and hereditary chiefs, which effectively ended the blockades last week.
Details of the draft accord have not been disclosed and the government has said it will remain confidential unless it is ratified by the Wet’suwet’en people in their traditional processes, which was expected to take up to two weeks.
Not all Wet’suwet’en members are against the pipeline, including 20 elected band councils along the route that have signed deals with Coastal GasLink.
Conservative MP Bob Zimmer says his caucus has been hearing from these pro-pipeline residents who say the federal government is not hearing the whole story.
“They want to have a community discussion about the issue and when you go into a community and you only pick a very select few to talk to — just the ones who are opposed to the project … there’s a frustration that you’re only wanting one result by only meeting with that particular group and even some of the ones you met with are chiefs under suspect circumstances,” Zimmer said.
Several women in the Wet’suwet’en nation who were once hereditary chiefs were stripped of their titles in recent years and replaced by men, says Theresa Tait-Day of the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition. She was among those who lost a hereditary title.
She told the committee Tuesday the chiefs who took part in the meetings with Ottawa and B.C. don’t speak for the whole nation, calling them “bullies” who have sidelined women in the community.
“The government has legitimized the meeting with the five hereditary chiefs and left out the entire community,” she said.
The chiefs who met the ministers have indicated they would take the draft agreement to the community to get consensus on whether to move forward. But Tait-Day said they have not held large public meetings, only smaller clan meetings of 20 or fewer people. She said she wants the federal government to help establish a better system within their nation to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.
“We need a mechanism as a nation that is democratic and inclusive where we can all make decisions about a project. We don’t have that system in place within the Wet’suwet’en,” she said.
The wishes of the community, including those who support the pipeline, have been hijacked by outside groups using the hereditary chiefs who are against the pipeline to block oil and gas projects in Canada, Tait-Day added.
“The hereditary chiefs feel that they have the support of the protesters and that the protesters agree with them. But it’s not about the protesters agreeing with them, it’s about our people getting a resource and a benefit from our land, which we went to court for.”
Bennett told the committee she did not go to B.C. to discuss the pipeline, which is a provincially approved project. She was there to negotiate land and title rights generally, pointing to a 1997 Supreme Court decision that she says recognizes hereditary leaders as the overall voice for those discussions.
That’s why the tentative deal that was reached does not deal with the pipeline itself, but aims instead to define more clearly the land and title rights of the Wet’suwet’en people in British Columbia, following the “Delgamuukw” decision.
In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the existence of Aboriginal title as an exclusive and ancestral right to the land, but the ruling fell short of recognizing the boundaries of the territory to which Wet’suwet’en title applies.
Bennett she is willing to meet with others from the community on the issue, but added the Wet’suwet’en have to decide amongst themselves how they want to move forward, rather than being directed by Ottawa.
“We have said from the beginning these decisions will be taken in the Wet’suwet’en nation, by the Wet’suwet’en people in their way, and that means in their houses, in their clans,” Bennett told reporters.
“It isn’t about the province of British Columbia or Canada, this is a nation decision as to whether what has been a proposed arrangement as to how we would move forward on the implementation of their rights and title — whether that is agreeable to their nation.”
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press