The Wet’suwet’en crises reached our area this week. There were a number of protests, the biggest of which took place in Campbell River on Feb 12, 2020. One of the key questions is, who speaks for Wet’suwet’en?
A group of 32 people caught the Quathiaski Cove ferry Campbell River. Most of them were Quadra residents, but I recognised a couple of Cortes Island faces. The most visible contingent were members of Sierra Quadra.
One of their directors, Angela Koch, told me, “The Wet’suwet’en will all be gathering in the big house and they are going to talk it over, but in the meantime they want the blockades to stop. There are so many people protesting this that there is no control and nobody knows what anybody is going to do, or what is going to happen. They don’t want anybody getting hurt, it’s not worth it to them.”
Chief Na’moks (John Risdale) of the Tsayu Clan told Global News “It’s not a debate. This is just to outline what we’re doing, this is where we’re going. Only certain people are allowed to speak, and it will be highly respectful. That’s our law. Yes there are going to be people on one side or the other, and they’re a very small group, but they can’t be vocal. Only the high chiefs can decide.”
Chief Na’moks is the spokesperson for the eight hereditary house Chiefs opposing a $6.6-billion pipeline that would through their territory en route to the LNG Canada export terminal in Kitimat. According to the Globe and Mail, one of the other chiefs has remained neutral and four positions are vacant. This is, in part, because three chiefs were removed from office.
“We did it in the feast hall by the house groups and the clans, and had the support of other chiefs,” says Chief Na’moks.
When the media and Coastal GasLink mention hereditary chiefs, they are almost invariably referring to those opposing the pipeline. On Feb 6, 2020, David Pfeifer, President of Coastal GasLink, issued a press release stating his company signed agreements with “all 20 elected Indigenous communities” along the pipeline’s route, but the only Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs he mentions, oppose it:
“It is disappointing that the Hereditary Chiefs sought to have our legal permits rescinded by the provincial government … Over the past month and over many years, we’ve reached out to the Hereditary Chiefs, over and over, but to no avail … We will continue to search for opportunities for dialogue with the Hereditary Chiefs and the Unist’ot’en.”
Koch has several objections to the way the pipeline negotiations were carried out: “Some of the bands that signed on, signed on under duress. They were told either you sign or you get nothing. There are about fifteen bands, of the bands that signed on, where the pipeline isn’t even going through their territorial lands.”
Nanaimo Green Party MP Paul Many wrote that, “the Hereditary Chiefs suggested an alternate route (see paragraph 59 of this document) for the Coastal Gas Link pipeline that would have been acceptable to them. Coastal Gaslink rejected those options and insisted on a route that drives a pipeline through ecologically pristine and culturally important areas of Wet’suwet’en territory, and sought approval for their proposed route from the elected band councils. Community meetings and feasts were held. The offer was presented to the Wet’suwet’en people, and I am told that many opposed the proposed pipeline. The band councils ultimately voted to allow the project to proceed, and signed a benefit agreement with Coastal Gas Link. This has created division and animosity in the community. It is essential that we recognize this divide as the result of colonial policies and decision making.”
Wet’suwet’en Band Councils Sign On
Five of the six Wet’suwet’en bands signed agreements with Coastal GasLink. The Skin Tyee First Nation, Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Witset First Nation, and Nee Tahi Buhn Band support the pipeline, only the Hagwilget Nation Village Council said ‘no’.
Indigenous businesses along the route could obtain as much as $620 million in contract work for the project’s right-of-way clearing, medical, security and camp management needs. In addition, some hope to be employed during the pipeline’s construction phase.
Koch insists there is no reason this money did not have to be connected to an expansion of the fossil fuel sector: “Why are we giving six billion dollars to a fracking industry, when six billion dollars would go such a long way towards green jobs, green technology and a cleaner world? Even if the Wet’suwet’en had signed on to this, I am sure they would sign on to green jobs and green energy as well – if they were given the money.”
Hereditary Chiefs Have The Last Word
Chief Na’Moks claims that the elected chiefs and councils only have authority on their reservations. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are responsible for the remaining 22,000 square kilometres of the nation’s traditional territory.
“In 1997 [Delgamuukw v. British Columbia], the Supreme Court of Canada said the hereditary chiefs have proven they are stewards of the land and so they have the last word as to what goes on,” explained Koch.
George Quocksister Jr, Hereditary Chief of the Laichkwiltach Nation in Campbell River, said, “The elected chiefs are designed by the Indian Act [of 1876] to create problems like what we have now. For example, we have two elected chiefs in the Campbell River res. and the Cape Mudge res. and they are all in favour of fish farms, and probably 90% of the people don’t want farmed fish. Nobody in their right mind wants farmed fish, they are destroying our whole coastline. We don’t want any oil pipelines. Take a look at the Exxon Valdes and how many years ago that was. You can go up there with a shovel and dig in the shoreline where the Exxon Valdes hit. There’s still oil there and a lot of oil. Take a look at the oil spill in Bella Bella a couple of years back. We don’t want any oil tankers, that is what this is all about. Take a look at climate change. We gotta stop this dirty stuff, it’s disgusting.”
Rachel Blaney: “Result Of A Broken System”
Around 70 people congregated in front of the offices of Rachel Blaney, MP, and Claire Trevana, MLA, at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2020.
Blaney was at a funeral in Sliammon; the following excerpt is taken from a prepared statement read out by her assistant:
“At the federal level we are calling for the RCMP to stand down in Wet’suwet’en territory, and for the BC and Federal governments to continue in genuine discussions with the chiefs …”
” … The situation we are seeing on Wet’suwet’en territory is the result of a broken system. It was broken intentionally by a history of colonialism and racism that has kept many Indigenous communities in poverty, deprived of dignity and economic opportunity, and with their traditional means of governance and decision making usurped. As a country, we are only just starting to come to terms with this history, let along working to fix it. It is hard, and it is uncomfortable, but it is something we all have to work through; within First Nations, and Indigenous communities on and off reserve, at the federal, provincial and local level …”
Provincial NDP Noticeably Absent
The provincial Government is noticeably absent from these events.
“One of the things that really bothers me is that Premier John Horgan is mouthing reconciliation out of one side of his mouth and yet he won’t even meet with these people. The Wet’suwet’en have asked for him to go up there,” said Koch.
Geraldine Kenny added that she received a phone call from MLA Claire Trevana’s assistant, Mary, at 10:15 AM that morning:
“She said that the RCMP had come into Claire Trevana’s office yesterday, saying that all handcuffs had been purchased from sex shops in Campbell River. The RCMP surmises that these handcuffs will be used for people to handcuff themselves to the door of Claire Trevena’s office.”
No one from Trevena’s office was present during the demonstration, so Kenny approached Rachel Blaney’s assistant, Lucas Schuller:
“I would like to hand in to the office of our MLA, Claire Trevana, a petition with regard to respecting the indigenous rights and hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en. I also have, here, letters from Campbell River, Quadra Island, Cortes and outer islanders and I would like to present these letters to our MLA. I want to deliver these letters to the office of Claire Trevena. Can I have access to the office please?”
“The office of Claire Trevena is closed today. I, as the staff person for Rachel Blaney, can receive those for you and will lay them on the desk and ensure Claire gets them,” said Schuller.
To which Kenny replied, “Thank-you very much, but I can say that as a resident and a constituent of Claire Trevana’s, I feel locked out.”