OTTAWA—The dispute over Coastal GasLink has not been settled. Canada’s Crown-Indigenous relations minister acknowledges that.
But Carolyn Bennett says the deal offered to Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs this weekend is nonetheless significant: it would recognize their nation’s land rights over a vast swathe of territory in northwestern British Columbia, and potentially prevent a quarrel like that which has sparked a nationwide solidarity movement from happening again.
In return for that offer, which the Wet’suwet’en have pursued for years, Ottawa asked for nothing, the minister’s office confirmed Monday.
“For 23 years and long before that, the Wet’suwet’en nation has been wanting to begin to implement their rights and title,” Bennett told the Star in a phone interview, referring to the 1997 Supreme Court decision that recognized the Wet’suwet’en never ceded their traditional territory to the Crown, but ordered a new trial to demonstrate the nation’s ownership rights over that land.
Bennett said the dispute arising over the Coastal GasLink pipeline — which is supported by elected band councils in the region but opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs — highlights the need to sort out the Wet’suwet’en authority system and how the nation exercises jurisdiction over its traditional territory.
“The decision on Coastal GasLink brought into sharp focus that that hadn’t happened, and in terms of where we are going now is … making sure that never happens again,” Bennett said.
“The nation knows that this is an opportunity to get it right.”
The government has long said an important element of its reconciliation agenda is the recognition of land rights and title for all Indigenous nations that wish to pursue them.
Bennett made clear that the offer is forward-looking and does not impact construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. She also made it clear that while Ottawa’s offer was unconditional, the government would still like to see the blockades end.
If the offer is accepted, the government will recognize Wet’suwet’en land ownership rights over their 22,000 square-kilometre traditional territory, Bennett said. Then work will begin on implementing how that will work in practice, including how the Wet’suwet’en will determine their national governance for making decisions on major projects in the future, Bennett said.
There is also the potential complication posed by First Nations with overlapping claims to parts of the Wet’suwet’en traditional territory, according to the B.C. Treaty Commission.
“Implementation is always complicated, but it is about everybody knowing what are the expectations of one another in terms of this partnership,” Bennett said.
But even as the proposed land title agreement was hailed as a “milestone” when it was announced in Smithers, B.C. on Sunday, the more immediate fracas over the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline that inspired blockades and protests across Canada remains unresolved. Bennett’s office reiterated to the Star on Monday that Coastal GasLink has all the permits it needs for construction of the $6.6-billion pipeline, and the company says it is on track to complete the project by 2023.
In Quebec, the Wet’suwet’en’s Mohawk allies stood firm south of Montreal as their blockade of Canadian Pacific rail tracks entered its fourth week, but were slated to meet Monday night to discuss their next move. Demonstrators at a second rail blockade in the province, in the Gaspésie, remained in place too, as Montreal police reported they were called to a new blockade on Canadian National tracks through the city.
Back in B.C., Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs did not return requests for comment from the Star on Monday. Last week, as Bennett and other federal ministers signalled progress was being made on their long-standing push for direct negotiations, the Wet’suwet’en chiefs appeared prepared to pull the plug on direct talks over the government’s demand that they call on their supporters across Canada to cool down.
Hours later, the talks were back on, with Coastal GasLink and the RCMP agreeing to pull back from the disputed construction area in Wet’suwet’en traditional territory while discussions were being held. The hereditary chiefs had refused to meet with government ministers until they were satisfied the RCMP had withdrawn from their territory and that Coastal GasLink had suspended construction of the pipeline.
By Monday, after the proposed deal to recognize Wet’suwet’en land title was announced, Coastal GasLink was preparing to resume construction in the disputed area. The RCMP also confirmed to the Star that it was starting to patrol the area again.
“The hereditary chiefs are asking for people to not back down because Coastal GasLink has not stopped working alongside, probably, the RCMP,” said Eve Saint, a pipeline opponent who was arrested, then released, at the Gidemt’en checkpoint in Wet’suwet’en territory in February.
“So none of what the hereditary chiefs wanted has been upheld — and those are the reasons for the blockade,” she said.
Saint is the daughter of Chief Woos, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief who represented the community in the four days of talks with Bennett and her B.C. counterpart, Scott Fraser. Saint said she has not spoken to her father since the negotiations, but she looked forward to learning what work was done, since it was clear to her from Woos’s public comments Sunday that the chiefs still oppose the Coastal GasLink project.
The leaders have said they will take time to discuss the proposal with members at a feast, which is a traditional governance practice according to Wet’suwet’en law. Saint said organizing the feast will likely take a couple weeks.
“They have to let community members know, on and off reserve, that this feast is going on,” said Saint, who lives in Toronto.
Get more politics in your inbox
Make sense of what’s happening across the country and around the world with the Star’s This Week in Politics email newsletter.
Jennifer Wickham, a media co-ordinator with the Gidemt’en camp where Saint was arrested for opposing the pipeline, said the negotiators were wrong to separate questions of land title from the immediate issue of the Coastal GasLink. With construction and RCMP patrols resuming, Wickham said the community is being forced to make a major decision “under an extreme amount of pressure.”
She welcomed the continuation of solidarity demonstrations across Canada, so long as RCMP patrols and pipeline construction are going on in Wet’suwet’en territory.
“More pressure is needed for the RCMP and (Coastal GasLink) to do the right thing, because we know they’re not going to do it willingly,” she said.