Wet’suwet’en chiefs and federal government neared breakthrough, but talks broke down after chiefs refused to call for calm

Wet’suwet’en chiefs and federal government neared breakthrough, but talks broke down after chiefs refused to call for calm

OTTAWA—Hopes for a breakthrough crumbled into an apparent impasse Wednesday after the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs accused the British Columbia and federal governments of refusing an offer to meet amidst the ongoing demonstrations in support of their anti-pipeline cause.

The statement late Wednesday flew in the face of expressions of optimism from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several federal ministers, who said earlier in the day that progress was being made to strike a direct dialogue with the B.C. nation’s hereditary leadership.

The Wet’suwet’en statement said the hereditary chiefs had “graciously invited” both levels of government “to enter into talks,” but that they “abruptly cancelled.”

Officials from the B.C. and federal governments were quick to challenge that characterization, with one official from the prime minister’s office stating that it was the chiefs who rescinded an invitation to meet late Wednesday.

A boy holds aloft a flag as people spoke in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs at Queen's Park on February 22, 2020.

Dinize Ste ohn tsiy, a wing chief of the Wet’suwet’en who is also known as Rob Alfred, told the Star he was part of the discussions amongst the hereditary leadership on Wednesday. He said they were very close to a deal to finally agree to a face-to-face meeting with government emissaries, but that the federal government pulled out when the chiefs said they would not call on activists who have blocked rail lines and staged rallies in cities across the country to de-escalate their demonstrations.

“It wasn’t even a sticking point it was a deal breaker because we had basically the deal done to meet,” he told the Star by phone from B.C.

“Once the federal government found out that they won’t publicy ask other nations to stop supporting us, they said talks are off.”

In an emailed statement Wednesday night, B.C. Premier John Horgan’s office expressed regret about the situation, stating it is “unfortunate” that they had not been able to agree to a meeting with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

“We had hoped the hereditary chiefs would agree to a period of peace and respect during the talks, which would include encouraging their supporters to remove blockades,” the statement said.

“We remain interested in meeting with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and will continue to engage with them and the Federal Government in hopes of finding a resolution.”

An official from the B.C. government who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the sticking point was over the question of whether the Wet’suwet’en chiefs would call on other demonstrators to stand down.

Another official from the federal government, who agreed to speak on background, said Ottawa expected a meeting was imminent after the Wet’suwet’en chiefs invited Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to travel to their northern B.C. territory for a meeting.

“Of course there would be an understanding that, yeah, we’re going to call for calm and focus on a path forward that’s peaceful,” the official said. “There would have been an understanding that all parties involved would want a peaceful and productive outcome.”

The apparent setback came after statements of optimism from Trudeau earlier Wednesday, who spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill of “positive progress” in efforts to set up a face-to-face dialogue between the chiefs and federal and B.C. Indigenous relations ministers.

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Na'moks (centre), a spokesman for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, held a press conference in Smithers, B.C., Tuesday, Jan.7, 2020, on the one-year anniversary of RCMP enforcement of an injunction granted to Coastal GasLink.

The optimism was echoed by federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who left the Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday with a hopeful expectation of progress.

Bennett pointed to the work of Nathan Cullen, a former NDP MP appointed by B.C. to facilitate discussions with the chiefs, and told reporters to expect information about steps forward Wednesday afternoon.

At the same time, the government continued to emphasize the need for dialogue and urged demonstrators to take down barricades blocking highways and railroad tracks. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said local police are responsible for upholding the law, after Mohawk activists in Tyendinaga, Ont. were seen standing in front of a moving train, throwing rocks at it, and placing flaming tires on the tracks.

The hereditary chiefs have previously called on the RCMP to dismantle a satellite detachment in their traditional territory, and to stop patrolling a logging road leading into to the Unist’ot’en healing camp and a construction site for the Coastal GasLink.

Meanwhile, demonstrations supporting the Wet’suwet’en continued across Canada. Indigenous youth in Victoria said from the steps of the B.C. legislature that they will occupy ministry offices and rail lines to hold all levels of government accountable to Indigenous peoples. And in Kahnawake, Que., Mohawk demonstrators reinforced their blockade of Canadian Pacific rail tracks with concrete barriers and rocks, with Grand Chief Joseph Norton stating the local Mohawk nation is considering filing a legal challenge of the court injunction to clear the tracks.

In Winnipeg, local police were reportedly investigating graffiti sprayed outside the Manitoba RCMP headquarters and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, the Liberal MP for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, told reporters on Parliament Hill that his constituency office was also vandalized. Photos posted by CTV News Winnipeg showed red graffiti sprayed across the office windows that said: “Shut Down KKKanada” and “U Fail Us.”

“It’s disappointing when that happens, because the way out of this issue is through dialogue, not vandalizing something or violence,” Vandal said. “We need to talk to each other, and we need to set the right stage and the right table for that.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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