OTTAWA— This thing is nowhere near settled.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair jumped the gun Thursday morning when he said the RCMP made an offer to Wet’suwet’en protesters that should lead to a “peaceful” resolution of the blockades crisis crippling passenger and freight rail service across Canada.
It was clear after suppertime Thursday that once again, there was no big breakthrough.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau briefed the premiers on the state of efforts by Ottawa and B.C. to contain the spreading damage and made the case for more patience.
A PMO summary said Trudeau told premiers he wants a long-lasting resolution and highlighted that “we need our railroad system to be fully functional and we are looking at our options to resolve the current interruptions given the impact on our economy.”
But the early morning optimism was unwarranted.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said he and Trudeau have sent two letters offering their senior ministers to meet, and had no response to the latest effort, sent Wednesday. Asked why it is so difficult, Horgan replied: “Communications have to be two-way.”
“Our communications efforts have been public record, and the better question would be to those who are representing the interests of hereditary leadership to respond to that question.”
Earlier in the day Blair revealed — before the RCMP or the Wet’suwet’en in B.C. had — that the RCMP in that province had written the day before to hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs to offer to withdraw the Mounties from a mobile detachment on the northern B.C. logging road which Coastal GasLink pipeline construction crews need to use.
The RCMP offered to patrol out of the detachment in the nearby town of Houston, emphasizing it expects the road to remain open to public and Coastal GasLink crews.
Soon after, Coastal GasLink signalled in a statement to the Star it intends to continue its operations even as it seeks “a negotiated resolution to the issues outlined by the hereditary chiefs and continue to provide long-lasting benefits to the Wet’suwet’en people.”
Blair had declared the RCMP offer “met the condition” that those “on the barricades” said was “important.”
Blair and the federal ministers of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Marc Miller had hoped the RCMP’s offer — which they insisted was made independent of any government pressure — would allow for an end to solidarity protests that had stopped rail traffic near Belleville, Ont., and, over the past two weeks, at points in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, and at points outside Montreal.
The ministers did not misrepresent the position of the Wet’suwet’en Nation but they didn’t outline it entirely either.
But that’s because the Wet’suwet’en demands are not that simple.
Not only do hereditary chiefs want the RCMP to leave the logging road that activists blockaded, they want the company to suspend operations, they want “charges dropped” against any activists who were arrested when the RCMP enforced an injunction, and they want “nation-to-nation” talks with the federal and provincial governments.
It wouldn’t be fair to say the Wet’suwet’en goalposts have shifted.
But it is fair to say even after more than a year of protests at the site, court injunctions, eviction notices, and two weeks of rail blockades, and contrary statements by other Wet’suwet’en residents in support of the pipeline at a public event this week in Smithers, B.C., it’s difficult for the federal and provincial governments, media and the Canadian public to know exactly who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en, and what is the path forward.
In interviews with the Star late Thursday, two members of the Wet’suwet’en nation said decision-making for Wet’suwet’en people is collective, and insisted the company does not have the consent it needs to proceed.
Karla Tait, director of clinical programming at the healing centre, was one of the activists arrested earlier this month as the RCMP cleared the Wet’suwet’en blockade.
She said the long-standing and overarching demand has been that the company cease its operations on traditional territory because it has not obtained the approval of hereditary chiefs, and she said the RCMP letter changes nothing.
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“I don’t believe this (RCMP) gesture with the conditions attached demonstrates good faith and sets up the conditions for nation-to-nation talks to occur without duress. Like, how are we supposed to proceed with these nation-to-nation talks if this company continues to destroy parts of our territory without consent?”
None of the hereditary chiefs were available to speak to the Star Thursday. Four of five were in central Canada to thank Mohawk protesters for their solidarity and did not reply to a request sent to their spokesperson. A fifth had remained in B.C. and was also unavailable.
Tait said while the hereditary chiefs have not publicly demanded that any charges against protesters be dropped, “I think it would be a good faith showing if the province or the RCMP made that stance, but I don’t know who has the power to do that.”
But in fact, the RCMP told the Star a total of 28 persons were arrested yet “no charges have yet been laid.” One woman remains in police custody who refused to sign an undertaking to be released.
Trudeau and Horgan insist that they are prepared to send their senior ministers into Wet’suwet’en territory to meet the hereditary chiefs. But the Wet’suwet’en have made it clear they only want to meet the top guns.
“The best solution would be a more comprehensive one in which the federal and provincial leads — so Trudeau and Horgan — accept the offer or request to meet with our hereditary chiefs here on Wet’suwet’en territory and that the work of CGL (Coastal GasLink) be stayed until those discussions occur and that the RCMP remove themselves from our territory,” said Tait.
Dinize Ste ohn tsiy, a Wet’suwet’en wing chief whose English name is Rob Alfred, said an eviction notice issued by the nation’s hereditary chiefs in December still stands. He agreed Wednesday’s offer by the RCMP isn’t enough.
He said the chiefs won’t meet with B.C. and federal Indigenous relations ministers until three demands are met: the RCMP needs to stop patrolling and stopping people in the area where a healing lodge and Wet’suwet’en checkpoint were set up to block construction of the pipeline.
Coastal GasLink security and construction crews also need to leave Wet’suwet’en territory, and all charges laid against people arrested while blocking construction need to be dropped, he said. Only then, he said, will the hereditary chiefs agree to meet with government ministers.
“Right now we can’t even talk because CGL is on the territory, they have their private security,” he said. “That’s all got to stop before anything because we’re under threat, basically.”
Beyond that, Dinize Ste ohn tsiy — who is a wing chief and part of his nation’s rights and title committee — said the Wet’suwet’en want the government to recognize their title over their traditional territory, something the nation has been demanding for decades.
“This fight’s been going on for over 40 years. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, it’s just been hidden from mainstream media,” he said. “There’s lots of people upset over the blockades, but if they knew what we’ve gone through all these years… We were pushed into a corner and this is what comes out of it.”
The Wet’suwet’en nation has its own distinct authority system based on 13 house chiefs that exist across five clans. As Dinize Ste ohn tsiy explained, recent deaths have left four of those positions vacant, meaning there are currently nine hereditary Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
These authority positions are separate from the elected chiefs of band councils along the pipeline route, who are chosen by members of First Nations as defined by the federal Indian Act, a law from the 19th century that has been used through Canada’s history to control aspects of Indigenous life, including freedom of movement and the freedom to engage in cultural practices.
The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en maintain they have never given up authority over their traditional territory, so the Coastal GasLink can’t cross through without their permission.
“It’s bigger than the pipeline. It’s about Indigenous rights. It’s just that the pipeline is the catalyst,” Dinize Ste ohn tsiy said.