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Supporters of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en Nation's hereditary chiefs at a railway blockade in St. Lambert, Que., Feb. 20, 2020.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks (John Ridsdale) speaks as Indigenous people and supporters gather before marching in a pipeline protest, in Smithers, B.C., on Jan. 16, 2019.
Supporters of the indigenous Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary chiefs at a railway blockade in St. Lambert, Que., Feb. 20, 2020.
Signs posted on a fence at a railway blockade in St. Lambert, Que., Feb. 20, 2020.
It’s been a good week for the Conservatives in terms of generating funds and support – possibly their best since Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared before the justice committee a year ago at the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Andrew Scheer was criticized in some quarters when he called for the government to direct the RCMP to clear away the rail blockades. That is playing with weeping gelignite – we are still in the realm of a political protest but it could flare into armed conflict if handled badly.
Yet Scheer and his parliamentary colleagues have been more in tune with the public mood than a government that has resembled the wallflower at the prom, paralyzed while waiting for a call to dance from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that is never likely to come.
Few Canadians would take issue with the opposition day motion the Conservatives put forward on Thursday (having decided against the option of tabling a motion of no confidence).
It called for “the House to stand in solidarity with every elected band council on the Coastal GasLink route, the majority of hereditary chiefs, the vast majority of Wet’suwet’en people who support the project, and to condemn radical activists who are exploiting divisions within the Wet’suwet’en community and holding the Canadian economy hostage.”
On day 15 of the rail blockade, there is broad public sympathy with Scheer’s contention that Justin Trudeau has made too many concessions “to those who have more resolve than he does.”
There are signs that the Liberal government is running out of patience. “We believe the time has come for the barricades to come down,” said Bill Blair, the public safety minister during question period. He said the government will seek a resolution “as peacefully as possible.” But it may be too late for the Liberals – the repeated use of the word “weak” in connection with Trudeau’s response has probably ingrained itself in the public mind.
In the meantime, the country remains captive to the whims of a (literal) handful of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Mélanie Morin from the Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society, wrote to me to say that I have oversimplified the governance structure of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in recent columns. That is almost by necessity – there are six bands, each with elected chiefs and council, 13 hereditary house chiefs (of which eight are active and five vacant).
Five of the seven hereditary chiefs who oppose the project are head chiefs, who speak for their entire clans, not just their houses. They are currently in Tyendinaga, Ont., thanking Mohawk groups there for their support and making themselves resolutely unavailable to talk to ministers, Marc Miller and Carolyn Bennett.
When she was asked whether the country simply has to wait until the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the Mohawks had finished their planned four days of meetings, Bennett sounded all at sea.
“This will be up to the Wet’suwet’en chiefs. I think they have indicated this is a meeting of thanking the Mohawks for their support but we have no – without a conversation we don’t know…”
Morin said the Wet’suwet’en who oppose Coastal GasLink have “established extensive networks.” But even she did not contend that the pipeline opponents have the support of the majority of their fellow Wet’suwet’en members. It is patently obvious they do not.
Troy Young is from Hagwilget Village First Nation (one of six Wet’suwet’en bands) and is director of Kyah Resources, an Indigenous-owned firm that has a contract with Coastal GasLink to clear trees and build roads through the forest to accommodate the pipeline. Last summer he employed 120 people, around a quarter of whom were Indigenous.
Young said five of the Wet’suwet’en’s six elected chiefs support the project as a way of improving the standard of living in communities where life expectancy, education levels and incomes are lower than among many non-native Canadians.
“The majority of people are in favour of the project,” he said in an interview. “It’s not new. The five most affected communities have an election every two years. That’s 15 elections in six years and in every one of them, the communities have continued to vote in favour of the pipeline.”
Young fears that if the project is halted, nobody will ever invest in the area again. “Some environmental activists think it’s in our best interests not to proceed. They should leave us to our own devices,” he said.
The hereditary chiefs and their supporters say the views of the elected chiefs only cover reserve lands and that it is the hereditary chiefs who have sole jurisdiction over their wider traditional territory.
The majority of people are in favour of the project
But, as a British Columbia Supreme Court justice noted recently when granting the injunction to clear the pipeline’s path of protesters, there is “significant conflict” between members of the Wet’suwet’en Nations. These include disagreements about whether traditional hereditary governance protocols were followed, and whether hereditary governance is appropriate for decision-making that impacts the entire Wet’suwet’en.
Three female hereditary chiefs who supported the project have been stripped of their titles, One of their replacements, Frank Alec, who has been a vocal critic of the pipeline and goes by the title Chief Woos, runs a consulting business specializing in “conflict resolution”, according to his website. We can’t make this stuff up – we’re not allowed to.
Questions about whether he is currently acting as a paid consultant were not answered by the office of the Wet’suwet’en.
One of the pre-conditions to dialogue laid down by Woos was that the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territorial lands – a concession the Mounties have now granted.
Will that be enough to bring down the barricades?
That will depend on the chiefs and they appear, if not intractable, certainly less than tractable.
The Instagram account of one hereditary chief boasted about how “years of resistance has caused multiple multi-billion projects to be delayed or cancelled.” If the chiefs are motivated more by environmental activism than Indigenous justice, there is likely to be little room for compromise.
In an interview with CBC’s Vassy Kapelos, Woos said that the hereditary chiefs felt “insulted and humiliated” at the lack of consultation by Coastal GasLink. Yet the Indigenous relations consultant employed by the firm between 2012 and 2019 said in an affidavit that the company reached out repeatedly to hereditary leaders – attempting to contact one protest organizer 40 times.
Woos said that what he and other chiefs really want is respect. But respect is a two-way street – it is not easily earned when you elevate a special interest over the general interest.
In his attempt to calm agitation in the country, the prime minister laid down his arms. Now the chiefs and his Conservative opponents have their knives at his throat.
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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020