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Indigenous Affairs
Rights + Justice

Politicians and Columnists Still Don’t Seem to Get the Wet’suwet’en Crisis, so Let’s Review

A look at the governance, and what a treaty might do.

Paul Willcocks 25 Feb 2020 |

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

Peter MacKay has jumped into the lead in the hotly contested battle to offer the most ignorant response to the Wet’suwet’en pipeline crisis.

And not even for his tweet encouraging vigilante action against protests.

On Friday, the front-running Conservative leadership candidate called for someone to do something about rail blockades supporting the Wet’suwete’en hereditary chiefs.

“All 20 of the democratically elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en people have spoken,” MacKay’s statement said. “They support construction of the pipeline.”

Nope. There aren’t 20 Wet’suwet’en band councils. There are six, and five have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, the company building the pipeline. That does not mean they support pipeline construction. Fifteen other First Nations along the route have signed similar agreements.

MacKay claimed to be addressing a national crisis. And had no idea what he was talking about.

He’s not alone. Pipeline advocates lean heavily on the claim the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are illegitimate, “a clique of Wetsuweten dissidents,” in the misspelled words of Toronto newspaper columnist Jonathan Kay.

The Supreme Court of Canada accepted the legitimacy of the hereditary chiefs in the Delgamuukw decision on their claim to traditional territory. Hereditary chiefs, not elected councils, launched the case. The court noted the chiefs represent “all of the Wet’suwet’en people.”

The federal and provincial governments reached the same conclusion. The BC Treaty Commission was created in 1993 with the goal of settling all land claims in the province. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were the representatives of their nation in negotiations, not the councils and chiefs elected under the Indian Act. The elected councils made no objection. (The treaty process failure has contributed to the Wet’suwet’en crisis — but we’ll get to that.)

It’s no surprise the authority of the hereditary chiefs was recognized. They represent the Wet’suwet’en nation and its 3,200 members, part of a system of governance that evolved over centuries.

The elected councils and chiefs are a creation of the Canadian government, established by the Indian Act in 1876. The goal — like the Gradual Civilization Act that preceded it — was to encourage, or force, assimilation.

And the elected chiefs and councils represent the six bands that make up the nation. Their authority is limited to their reserve, and the Indian Act narrowly proscribes their powers.

The Indian Act says the elected chief and council are responsible for the “regulation of bee-keeping and poultry raising” and “the observance of law and order.” They can make land use rules. But even for things like levying property taxes — standard for municipalities — they need federal government approval.

The elected councils have a limited role in governing six reserves totalling 35 square kilometres. The Wet’suwet’en say their traditional territory is 22,000 square kilometres and the hereditary chiefs are responsible for those territories.

Kay and the pro-pipeline contingent ignore all that. His unfortunate column claimed “the B.C. pipeline that’s being protested already has been approved by democratically elected Indigenous bands that are prioritizing growth and self-sufficiency over environmental puritanism.”

The elected councils haven’t actually approved it. Five of the six band councils have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, the company building the pipeline to carry gas from the province’s northeast to an LNG plant in Kitimat.

But that does not equal approval of the project. Some councillors decided the pipeline was going through with or without their approval, so they might well reap some benefits.

In any case, under Wet’suwet’en law, their approval doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of their small reserves.

You might not like the concept of hereditary chiefs. Many Indigenous people don’t. Robert Jago of the Langara First Nation is part of a movement to replace its hereditary government with a more democratic model.

“I loathe the concept of hereditary chiefs in my region,” he recently wrote on Twitter. But he also said he didn’t want to “step into the middle of a Wet’suwet’en conflict.” (Jago offered a good primer on the issue here, including the wide range of approaches taken by First Nations, and we interviewed him Tuesday on the unfolding events.)

The reality is that the Wet’suwet’en get to choose how they want to be governed and who speaks for them — not federal or provincial politicians or columnists.

The BC Treaty Commission was supposed to help end the potential for these kinds of disputes. The federal and provincial governments created the commission in 1993 to negotiate treaties with First Nations across the province, with hopes for quick progress.

But after 27 years and around $1 billion, those hopes are in tatters. There are just three treaties. Another 26 First Nations are still negotiating. And 31 nations that originally signed up — including the Wet’suwet’en, represented by the hereditary chiefs — are “not currently negotiating.”

The treaty process objectives included provisions for self-government for each nation, free from the strictures of the Indian Act and federal government oversight. Every nation would develop its own constitution and system of government.

The Nisga’a Treaty, reached outside the treaty commission process, showed the way. The Nisga’a created a constitution, ratified by the nation’s members.

It sets out the role of the elected government and Simgigat and Sigidimhaanak’ — hereditary chiefs and matriarchs — who have an advisory role as part of a Council of Elders. The constitution defines the responsibilities of the national government and village governments and guarantees participation of Nisga’a living off reserve.

A Wet’suwet’en constitution might look very different, and the path to crafting it could be challenging.

But if the treaty process had worked, the nation would have moved beyond the Indian Act and we’d be spared all the ill-informed, politically motivated claims about who really represents the Wet’suwet’en people.  [Tyee]

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