Protesters stand at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., on Monday Feb. 24, 2020, during a protest in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

B.C. VIEWS: Pipeline dispute highlights need for clarity

As the B.C. treaty process grinds on, uncertainty remains

It would be a mistake to assume that the dispute between Wet’suwet’en traditional leaders and the Coastal GasLink pipeline project can be resolved in a column.

It has taken generations to get to this point; it will take more than 550 words to get past it.

What the dispute has revealed, however, is the absolute urgency for action.

Not the kind that some suggest. Sending in the troops, or ordering police to dismantle blockades has failed to produce longterm solutions in the past. It will again.

What’s needed is a commitment by First Nations, provincial and federal governments to resolve the longstanding land title and governance issues that lie at the core of the dispute.

The Wet’suwet’en blockade is the symptom of a bigger problem. It is a byproduct of British Columbia’s messy and unfinished treaty process, and a failed and broken federal Indian Act.

How dysfunctional it has become can be seen in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation itself. While some British Columbians may have just heard about Gaslink’s plan to build a $6 billion pipeline from Northeastern B.C. to a $40 billion gas liquefaction plant and export terminal at Kitimat, the Wet’suwet’en have been debating it for years.

The discussions were not easy, and even today the debate is polarizing the community. But in the end, the elected band councils supported the project, arguing construction would provide opportunity and employment for their members.

What Coastal Gaslink failed to do was convince the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

And there’s the rub.

Elected band councils are the product of the Indian Act – a notoriously paternal piece of 19th century legislation. Its primary function was to promote the rapid assimilation and cultural extinction of First Nations people across Canada. It brought residential schools, subjugated women, squelched traditional languages, and even barred dancing and the wearing of regalia.

It also provided a mechanism for bands to manage their own reserve lands through elected band councils.

The challenge in B.C. is that reserve lands make up only a fraction of the traditional territory claimed by First Nations.

And because few treaties have ever been signed in this province, these First Nations have never relinquished their title or rights to that land – a point supported by the Canadian Supreme Court in its 1997 Delgamuukw ruling.

It is this traditional territory that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim authority over.

That claim has created a simple narrative: Traditional leaders, defending traditional territory from colonial and industrial incursion.

Dismissed in this narrative, of course, is the support from the 20 First Nations along the pipeline route and the extensive consultations with those nations that have taken place to get to this point.

The question of who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en is something the Wet’suwet’en will have to decide themselves.

But it is a question that will continue to be asked in other Indigenous communities until the issue of land claims in B.C. is resolved. The treaty process – moving as slowly as it is – will not only define aboriginal rights and title, but provide agreed-upon governance structures.

Without that resolution there will be no clarity, no certainty, and little chance of the economic prosperity so many First Nations people are calling for.

Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor. Email him at greg.knill@blackpress.ca.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coastal GasLink

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Letter: Heartened by the work shown by communities

Dr. Paul Stent, acting mayor for the district of Fort St. James writes a letter to residents

Are you ready for bear season?

BC Conservation Officer Service in Vanderhoof says people should take their bird feeders down until next winter.

Better COVID-19 testing results needed in the north

Former senior Northern Health official also wants work camps shut down

Social media a blessing and a curse during time of crisis: B.C. communication expert

‘In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable,’ says SFU’s Peter Chow-White

A curfew is being implemented by Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation

The First Nations community will also be putting up check-points due to COVID-19 concerns

B.C. couple celebrates 61st anniversary through seniors’ home window

Frank and Rena Phillips marked occasion at Nanaimo Seniors Village this week while social distancing

A look at some of the B.C. inventors creating life-saving tools in fight against COVID-19

Groups across B.C. are working together to create what they hope will help people affected by the pandemic

Association launches French-language games, online tools for families learning at home

Games, culture and vocabulary included in new virtual resources

‘There can be no ambiguity’: Travellers brought home to B.C. must self-isolate

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the mandatory isolation must be abided by

55+ BC Games cancelled amid COVID-19 concerns

Greater Victoria set to host 2021 event

BC Hydro offers three-month bill ‘holiday’ for those affected by COVID-19

Industrial customers can defer half of their power bills

Some April Fool’s Day jokes bring much-needed laughter; others tone deaf to COVID-19

Police are warning the public not to use the ongoing pandemic as a punchline

Canada’s 75% wage subsidy is coming, but not for several weeks: finance minister

Subsidy will cost Canada $71 billion, but push down cost of emergency benefit, Morneau said

Call before you dig into spring projects during isolation: BC 1 Call

BC 1 Call gives free checks for utilities in the area of a desired outdoor project

Most Read