OTTAWA—The RCMP’s raid on an anti-pipeline barricade in northwestern British Columbia sparked rallies from Vancouver to the heart of the nation’s capital on Tuesday, where demonstrators voicing solidarity with hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation forced the prime minister to change the location of a scheduled meeting with Indigenous leaders.
Even in some parts of the United States, people organized events to denounce the arrest of 14 people at the Gidimt’en checkpoint near Houston, B.C. on Monday night. The barricade was set up to block the Coastal GasLink project in defiance of a B.C. Supreme Court injunction. Issued in December, the injunction allows for construction of the 670-km natural gas pipeline from the northern Rocky Mountains to the planned $40-billion LNG facility in the coastal town of Kitimat — an export terminal the Liberal government boasts is the “largest” private sector investment in Canadian history.
In Ottawa, demonstrators marched from Parliament Hill to a government building on Sussex Drive, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was slated to address a forum of leaders from First Nations who have signed modern treaties and self-government agreements. But after the demonstrators entered the building and continued to drum and chant slogans inside, Trudeau’s security detail decided to move the location of his speech to another site, an official with the Prime Minister’s Office said.
When Trudeau finally spoke, almost two hours behind schedule, he did not mention the protests or address the situation in B.C. Instead, he highlighted areas where he said progress had been made, such as planned child-welfare reforms, coming legislation on Indigenous languages. He also praised those present for representing how First Nations can move beyond “the colonial relic of the Indian Act” — 19th century legislation that determines “Indian status” and First Nations governance.
“To be perfectly frank, there’s lots of work ahead of us. I don’t want to dwell on the past, but you know, and I know, that previous governments and institutions spent years ignoring your communities and your concerns,” Trudeau said.
Other political leaders expressed solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en blockaders. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was set to join Tuesday’s demonstration in Vancouver. And Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, condemned the RCMP “use of force” as a violation of human rights and First Nations’ rights.
On Twitter, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he is “very concerned with the ongoing situation at the Wet’suwet’en blockade,” and called on the prime minister to address the issue in light of the government’s support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Trudeau cannot remain silent,” Singh said.
According to Coastal GasLink, all elected First Nations bands along the pipeline path — including Wet’suwet’en — have signed benefit agreements to support the project. The deal with the band called Wet’suwet’en First Nation, signed in 2014, means the First Nation will receive about $2.8 million from the B.C. government, including almost $1.2 million when construction of the pipeline begins.
But those opposing the pipeline point out the agreement was signed by the band council defined under the Indian Act, and say that means it only applies to the reserve where that council has jurisdiction. The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation’s five clans say they haven’t given Coastal GasLink permission to enter their traditional territory.
“It becomes kind of an unfortunate conflict: the age-old Indian Act and elected chiefs and council, versus an even older system of traditional governance,” said Stephen O’Neill, a former Ontario Superior Court judge who retired from the bench in 2016 to work in Indigenous law at the firm, Nahwegabow Corbiere.
“These are clans, these are houses, these are ancient systems of governance,” he said.
“Usually you’re not going to get that conflict, but occasionally on something like this, it shows up.”
O’Neill also lamented how the vital question of who has authority over large swathes of northern B.C. is being fought over, 22 years after the landmark Delgamuukw v British Columbia case at the Supreme Court of Canada.
That case marked the first time Canada’s top court described Indigenous land title, when justices spelled out how governments must meaningfully consult — and potentially compensate — First Nations when their title is infringed. Coincidentally, the case also involved hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en nation, who argued their oral histories and traditions showed age-old jurisdiction over the land.
But as O’Neill pointed out, the Delgamuukw case didn’t settle the issues of ownership and authority; the court recognized Indigenous title exists, but ordered a new trial in the specific matter at hand. A generation later, there is still no court declaration or treaty to delineate between Crown and Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction in the area, he said. That leaves the potential for conflict — as seen this week — between the view that the Crown has underlying authority over the area, versus that of Wet’suwet’en, who see no outside jurisdiction over traditional territory they have never agreed to relinquish.
“We can’t be sure where the parameters of the Wet’suwet’en or the Indigenous title in this case lie,” O’Neill said. “A whole generation of people have come and gone…and now we have a rising-up again.
“To me, that’s a failure of the political system and the judicial system.”
With files from Perrin Grauer and Jesse Winter
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga