Wet’suwet’en chiefs, ministers reach tentative arrangement over land title but debate over pipeline continues

A Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief and senior government ministers say they have reached a proposed arrangement to acknowledge land title rights established more than 20 years ago in a Supreme Court decision.

The parties agree the proposal is an important step in discussions related to a natural gas pipeline dispute that has prompted solidarity protests across Canada in recent weeks. But the parties still disagree on how to move forward with the controversial pipeline.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and British Columbia Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser would not give details on the proposed arrangement, saying it first has to be reviewed by the Wet’suwet’en people.

Chief Woos, one of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, said the proposal represents an important milestone to recognize the rights of the hereditary leaders over their traditional territory.

“This is where it starts. The duty to consult as well as the rights and title,” Woos said.

The announcement comes as talks between the hereditary chiefs and the ministers entered a fourth day.

1997 landmark ruling

Fraser said “it was an interesting and powerful three days.”

Protocol on how to work with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs should have been developed 23 years ago, Fraser said, when the 1997 Delgamuukw decision acknowledged Aboriginal land title and set a precedent for how it is understood in Canadian courts.

The decision stemmed from a 1984 case launched by the leaders of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations, who took the provincial government to court to establish jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of land and water in northwest British Columbia.

Coastal GasLink, the company building the pipeline, did sign agreements with representatives from 20 First Nations for the pipeline, including Wet’suwet’en elected band councils. The project was subsequently approved by the provincial government.

But Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils, and many of the hereditary leaders oppose the pipeline and say the company should not have been allowed to build it without their consent.

Still opposed to pipeline

Woos said the hereditary leaders remain opposed to the pipeline.

He warned developers that the hereditary leaders will continue to protect their waters, wildlife habitats and traditional sites with “everything we have.”

“As Wet’suwet’en, we are the land and the land is ours,” he said. “We’re not going to look at any alternative ways.”

Fraser said the tentative land and title arrangement would not be retroactive on the pipeline issue, and the parties remained in disagreement about how to move forward.

“The project that’s in place, it has been permitted and it’s underway,” he said.

Coastal GasLink issued a statement Sunday to say it “appreciates” that Wet’suwet’en title and rights have been identified, but that the company has permits in place and it intends to resume construction activities on Monday.

Rights holders always ‘at the table’

Bennett said the past few days of negotiations had been about learning, and humility.

“The rights holders will always be at the table. And that is the way through for Canada,” Bennett said.

During the media scrum, Bennett referred more than once to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C recently enshrined. It sets minimum standards for how nation states should deal with Indigenous peoples.

The federal government is also looking at tabling a bill to adopt the UN declaration.

Bennett said the proposed arrangement will honour the protocols of the Wet’suwet’en people and clans.

Lawyer Peter Grant, who represented the Wet’suwet’en and neighbouring Gitxsan First Nation, said the proposal is not a treaty. “It’s a draft arrangement, but I think it’s very powerful,” he said.


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