All eyes on Wet’suwet’en
If one believes in serendipity, one would think it was no mistake that this profound writing was first on my screen today on my early morning check ins. Today facebook memories are flooded with images and videos taken a year ago, the first time RCMP breached the peaceful Gidumt’en Checkpoint. https://unistoten.camp/arrests-at-gidumten-checkpoint-rcmp-raid-anticipated-at-unistoten-camp/
After the BCSC granted Coastal Gaslink an injunction on New Years Eve, hereditary chiefs evicted Coastal Gaslink workers from their unceded traditional territory.
Last night, the enforcement order for the interlocutory injunction granted to Coastal Gaslink on New Years Eve, was signed. Once CGL posts it on their website the RCMP have 72 hours to mobilize their forces again.
At the heart of the matter lies the difference between how hereditary leadership and law, and the elected band leadership, are treated and acknowledged by the provincial and federal governments.
On this project, several hereditary leaders say no, but the elected band leaders have said yes and signed agreements with CGL.
Unist’ot’en has explained their governance and responsibilities here https://unistoten.camp/about/governance-structure/
Angela Sterritt did an excellent piece here explaining the differences and I strongly urge you to read it, as it explains clearly the challenges. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/when-a-pipeline-wants-to-build-whose-in-charge-1.4971597
An important point is missed in most coverage that needs to be emphasized here.
While many media outlets are framing the women, men, elders and children there as ‘fringe protesters’, in fact they are not. It is their traditional unceded territory and land. They did not sign a treaty. The Unist’ot’en checkpoint has been there since 2009. There is a cabin, a healing lodge, pithouse and bunkhouse for visitors. The camp is used year-round for healing retreats, culture camps and living and they have a long record of protecting and inhabiting this land. I wrote about a first eviction in 2012 with the Pacific Trails pipeline crew.
Here is an excerpt from an easy to understand information post from just after last year’s police intrusion, that explains a bit more about why this matters – particularly now that the BC government has formally adopted UNDRIP, and the federal government has committed to repairing the relationship with Indigenous people in Canada:
“How does the hereditary governance system of the Wet’suwet’en people function?
The Wet’suwet’en peoples have occupied their territory for thousands of years and have a complex and sophisticated governance system. Just as Canadian law takes years of study and learn, so too does Wet’suwet’en law.
Indigenous legal scholar John Borrows has provided the following overview, “For millennia, their histories have recorded their organization into Houses and Clans, in which hereditary chiefs have been responsible for the allocation, administration and control of their traditional lands. Within these Houses, chiefs pass on important histories, songs, crests, lands, ranks and properties from one generation to the next. The passage of these legal, political, social and economic entitlements is witnessed through Feasts. These Feasts substantiate the territories’ relationships. A hosting House serves food, distributes gifts, announces the House’s successors to the names of deceased chiefs, describes the territory, raises totem poles and tells the oral history of the House. Chiefs from other Houses witness the actions of the Feast and at the end of the proceedings they validate the decisions and declarations of the Host House.” 
All of the hereditary leaders from all of the five clans have withheld consent for new pipeline construction across Wet’suwet’en territories.
What is the formal relationship of the hereditary governance system of the Wet’suwet’en people to the elected band council system?
In a press conference yesterday, Premier John Horgan referred to the challenge of bringing together the “historic band councils” with the “emerging” hereditary systems of governance. In fact, the relationship is reversed. While the hereditary system has existed for millennia and precedes European arrival on the continent, the Band council system was introduced by the federal government in 1876 and imposed on Indigenous Nations through the Indian Act, as part of a post-Confederation assimilation policy.
As it is currently structured, each reserve community within a territory has an election for Chief and Council every few years. The elected Chief and Council under the Indian Act are primarily responsible for things that happen on reserves like water, housing, schools, infrastructure and other issues that affect membership. There are five elected band councils on Wet’suwet’en territory, four of whom have signed agreements with Coastal Gaslink. However, hereditary leaders say those agreements don’t apply to the territories off reserve.
The imposition of the Indian Act band council system over top of hereditary systems has created ongoing tensions in many communities.
The CBC’s Angela Sterritt has written an excellent piece on the differences between elected and hereditary leadership.
What is the relevance of the Delgamuukw decision in relation to the Wet’suwet’en?
Many Canadians have heard of the important 1997 Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which recognized that Aboriginal title continues to exist over land and water where Indigenous nations have never signed a treaty with the Crown. The territory referred to in the court decision is Wet’suwet’en territory as well as neighboring Gitxsan territory.
The Delgamuukw case was framed around traditional hereditary leadership. Delgamuukw is a chief’s name in the Gitxsan Nation, passed down through generations, and Delgamuukw was one of dozens of plaintiffs in the case, composed of hereditary chiefs from both the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations. Together those leaders forced the Canadian courts to affirm the legitimacy of their oral histories, traditional laws and continuing governance of their lands.
Peter Grant, the lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs has stated that hereditary chiefs need to give their free, prior and informed consent in order for the pipeline to be built: “We agree the rule of law has to apply, but doesn’t that mean that when there’s recognition of the proper title holder you deal with the proper title holder?”
On January 9, Unist’ot’en Camp released a statement on the emerging situation, saying “We paved the way with the Delgamuukw court case and the time has come for Delgamuukw II. We have never had the financial resources to challenge the colonial court system, due to the enormous price tag of an Aboriginal title case. Who will stand with us to make sure this pipeline does not go through?”
What is the relevance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to this conflict?
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) represents the basic principles and minimum standards that should guide states in their dealings with Indigenous peoples.[i] Canada became a full signatory (removing previous objections) to UNDRIP in 2016, and both the federal and BC provincial governments have committed to full implementation of UNDRIP. The Canadian government defines UNDRIP as a document that describes both individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples around the world.[ii]
A number of articles of UNDRIP are relevant to this conflict, in particular Article 10 which states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”[iii]
I have great respect for the rule of law in this country. But I also know that we are now living in a time when both our provincial and federal governments have acknowledged Indigenous rights and commit to doing the work to implement UNDRIP… and yet here we are, not acknowledging hereditary leadership and traditional law and governance that was in place long before our law was imposed.
The rule of law must now reflect the changing dynamics of UNDRIP, which has been passed in BC. Particularly in a province where our premier shares these thoughts with pride :
“UNDRIP acknowledges the human rights of all people,” said Premier John Horgan. “UNDRIP is a recognition of Indigenous people because its their land. Land and language equal culture. It’s time we stand together and work toward mutual prosperity. We need to be sharing instead of dominating.”
By passing this bill and ultimately turning it into an act, it upholds the rights of Indigenous people to practise their culture and protocols, and honour their teachings, which includes language and ceremony. It also provides space to develop and grow their economic developments and initiatives.
During my conversation with Horgan, he explained to me that every act has a section at the beginning titled “Definitions,” where all the key words are listed along with their definitions.
In the Declaration Act, the “Definitions” section has been replaced with an “Interpretations” section. This is the first time in B.C. history this has been done.
“For this act we can only interpret it, we are sharing the information as it’s been told to us through oral traditions and storytelling,” said Horgan.
Well said Premier Horgan, but I do not understand how oral traditions, storytelling and universal rights of Indigenous peoples are acknowledged and enshrined in the governments recent bill…. yet ignored now because the hereditary chiefs who are opposed, continue to say no to this pipeline in their territory.
In this aspect, the rule of law granting this injunction is not just. It does not recognize the rights enshrined now in UNDRIP by the provincial government.
You cannot just stand and recognize this as fact in our house of government, you are obligated to do more than just ceremony.
You are obligated to do more than say that 20 elected bands and leadership have signed agreements, so therefore it is ok to ignore this one hereditary group of chiefs. It is not, at least I don’t think so. It is hypocritical and insincere.
You cannot pick and choose which nations matter and which do not. You cannot choose to acknowledge their governance and then choose to pretend it is of no consequence.
Every party elected in the legislature voted for UNDRIP. Every MLA stood to applaud it. Yet now? Silence.
According to this, the hereditary chiefs are willing to meet with the decision makers: the province, the feds and the RCMP, not Coastal Gaslink.
This IS the moment for both Horgan and Trudeau to do the hard work on Indigenous rights they have committed to do.
The world is watching.