Federal MPs engaged in spirited debate in the house of commons as trains remained halted on Thursday.
The opposition Conservative party tabled a motion demanding MPs “stand in solidarity with every elected band council on the Coastal GasLink route, the majority of hereditary chiefs, and the vast majority of the Wet’suwet’en people, who support the Coastal GasLink project.”
Earlier, the RCMP offered to pull back its detachment on Wet’suwet’en territory where a pipeline dispute set off a wave of actions across the country that have stopped trains for the last 15 days.
As of Thursday, 20, 647 trains were cancelled and 117 000 passengers Via Rail announced. It also said route of its southern Ontario routes resumed full service.
Conservative MP Todd Doherty said “over 85 per-cent of the Wet’suwet’en voted in favour of this. Eight of the 13 hereditary chiefs voted in favour of this. Twenty First Nations voted in favour of this project.”
However, Molly Wickham spokesperson for the Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en Clan, disagreed with these numbers.
She said it’s not “five chiefs” but rather high chiefs representing all five clans.
“It’s five clans of the Wet’suwet’en that the hereditary chiefs represent and are speakers on behalf of. So, there’s 13 house chiefs that represent five clans of the Wet’suwet’en. Four of those positions, four of those chief names, are vacant right now,” she said.
“The rest of the hereditary chiefs have unanimously gone up in our feast hall according to Wet’suwet’en law and transparently – with accountability in our feast hall with the whole community in attendance – have over and over again stated that they’re opposed to this pipeline specifically and all pipelines through our territory.”
However, the pipeline company has signed Impact Benefit Agreements (IBAs) with all 20 elected First Nations governments along the proposed route, including five of six Wet’suwet’en bands.
These agreements reportedly provide jobs and money in exchange for a declaration of consent. Agreements signed with the province include a declaration from First Nations that the duty to consult has been fulfilled.
While Wickham said the hereditary chiefs are united in opposition, one elected chief not only supported the pipeline, he also tried to buy a stake in it.
Wet’suwet’en community members have also expressed optimism about the economic opportunities.
The motion also called on the house of commons to “condemn the radical activists who are exploiting divisions within the Wet’suwet’en community, holding the Canadian economy hostage, and threatening jobs and opportunities in Indigenous communities.”
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett hit back at this language.
The Tory motion showed a “complete lack of understanding of the complexity” of the issue, she said.
“The young Indigenous people whom I met within the office of the Minister of Northern Affairs [Dan Vandal] were not ‘radical activists.’ They were sensitive, young, Indigenous people expressing the importance of the land, the water, and the air.”
Wickham also took umbrage.
“It’s not a matter of a small, rogue, radical group, and the fact that anybody from any level of government would even indicate that, or would even suggest that we are just a rogue group, really highlights the problem,” she said
“Governments are not respecting inherent Indigenous governance systems and aren’t recognizing them, and so it’s not a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of who has the authority to speak. All of our hereditary chiefs have been united on this: the house chiefs, the speakers for the houses have been united on this in our feast hall.”
Status of proposed discussions
Having RCMP withdraw is only one demand made by hereditary chiefs representing five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. They also want Coastal GasLink (CGL) to abide by an “eviction notice” that the chiefs issued in January.
On Wednesday, RCMP Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan sent a letter to hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation that offered to redeploy the Community Industry Safety Office (CISO) to the town of Houston, B.C.
The CISO is currently situated at the 29-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road
“If the commitment continues to keep the entire Morice West Service Road area open, then the need for the CISO has diminished or decreased,” police said.
The people demonstrating at the Tyendinaga site have said their solidarity demonstration will cease when the RCMP leaves the disputed land.
Some hereditary chiefs are in Ontario to meet with members of the Mohawk Nation to thank them for their solidarity demonstration near Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. They will proceed to Kahnawake after that.
Hereditary Chief Na’Moks stated the RCMP had not moved as of Thursday evening.
Na’Moks, also known as John Ridsdale, said yesterday that they won’t meet with government until CGL also leaves.
“Two very simple things. Get the police off the territory and CGL out. Then we’ll talk. We’ll never ever have a discussion while we’re under duress. You can’t have free talks with guns pointed at you,” he said.
The pipeline company said it “supports” the police drawback “provided Coastal GasLink contractors and staff continue to have safe and secure access to work sites in the Morice River area.”
Hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters constructed camps and checkpoints at various points along the Morice West Forest Service Road (FSR) to stop construction of the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline.
The hereditary chiefs also assert unextinguished Aboriginal title to 22,000 square kilometers in the area.
They also argue that, under their traditional governance system, the pipeline requires permission from the hereditary chief through whose territory the proposed pipe would pass.
Earlier this month, RCMP enforced a B.C. Supreme Court ordered injunction to remove those barricades to let CGL begin “clearing and grading” activities on the disputed lands.
Paramilitary federal police dismantled the camps and arrested 28 in those operations.
However, CISO has been stationed on the territory since January 2019, when a temporary injunction was enforced. Fourteen were arrested in those operations.
APTN asked CGL if it is considering a temporary drawback to help end demonstrations that are impacting freight and passenger train travel across Canada. A company spokesperson did not respond.
Despite the impasse, Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said they remain ready to meet with the chiefs, and would travel to Tyendinaga if invited.
“Everyone wants to take the air out of this balloon in the most controlled way. The problem is most people are coming at this with a pin, and that isn’t the right solution,” Miller told reporters.
“We ask for a little more patience because there is a real opportunity here to show the world we can resolve these issues in a peaceful way.”
-with files from Lee Wilson