‘They’re proceeding without us’: Elected chiefs in B.C. push back on Wet’suwet’en rights and title agreement

‘This lack of proper consultation and secrecy means the governments are acting in bad faith’

A majority of Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs are trying to stop a new rights and title agreement negotiated by their hereditary counterparts.

In a news release Monday, four of six elected chiefs in northern B.C. say they reject the memorandum of understanding (MOU) Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders reached with provincial and federal politicians in February.

They say it should be renegotiated with their full participation.

The elected chiefs of Skin Tyee Nation, Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nation, Wet’suwet’en First Nation and Nee Tahi Buhn Indian Band also called on Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to resign.

“They are proceeding without us, and we are a major part of this hereditary system, and as elected chiefs, we have signed agreements with environmental projects,” says Dan George, chief of the Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nation, also known as the Burns Lake Band.

“We still need to discuss what is happening on the territory and figure out where do we sit if they are given the right to the whole territory where do the elected chiefs sit?”

The chief of Witset First Nation did not sign the emailed statement, nor did the chief of Hagwilget Village First Nation.

Bennett, along with B.C. Indigenous Affairs Minister Scott Fraser, spent several days in February negotiating the original deal with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW) to end an impasse over construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline through the band’s traditional territory.

“We were briefly showed it on the OW meeting a month ago, but since then, we haven’t really had the opportunity to analyze the MOU thoroughly,” says George. “I have been told a few things that on Section B that it actually gives away some of the rights and title.”

Only a few details of the confidential agreement, which is scheduled to be signed May 14, have leaked out. It appears to give power to the hereditary chiefs – something elected chiefs have questions about.

“We feel it is important to reiterate that we agree with the pursuit of negotiations for Wet’suwet’en Rights and Title, but we take issue with the improper consultation with respect to an MOU which would lead to negotiations,” the statement from George and the other elected leaders said.

“This lack of proper consultation and secrecy means the governments are acting in bad faith contrary to the Honour of the Crown.”

The four elected chiefs said they only saw the MOU virtually for the first time last Thursday. And then had telephone meetings with Bennett and Fraser.

“We reiterated to the Ministers once again, that the process they have conducted to date is completely unacceptable and disrespectful to our people,” their statement added.

“The Elected Councils are the existing legal authority in the territories and are actively involved in all of the issues included for negotiation in the MOU.”

The Wet’suwet’en bands were created under the Indian Act and have elected chiefs and councils.

The B.C. government said the MOU was reviewed in a series of Wet’suwet’en clan meetings and approved by April 29.

The elected chiefs also panned the “six-hour virtual” meeting with hereditary chiefs on May 7.

“We voiced a lot of concerns why they shouldn’t sign. It would show good faith by them and by the provincial and federal government, but they are going to sign it anyways without having a community vote,” says George.

“This is the not the hereditary chiefs land, this is the community’s land.

“They are not following the responsibilities of Hereditary Chiefs. To ignore their clan members and Elected Councils, something is terribly amiss. They do not represent us, and they have no legal authority to negotiate or sign any documents on behalf of our clans or our members without a mandate.”

In their opinion, the elected chiefs said the governments are acting in “bad faith” contrary to the Honour of the Crown.

“Rights and title are the collective rights of ALL Wet’suwet’en people; they are not held only by Hereditary Chiefs and they cannot be defined or compromised by the small hand-picked group the government is dealing with. That is 19th century treaty making, not 21st century reconciliation.”

Jamie Schmale, the Conservative party’s Crown-Indigenous Relations critic, raised the issue Tuesday during a virtual Parliamentary committee meeting dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said elected chiefs had been excluded from the “secret negotiations” and asked Bennett to delay the May 14 signing to allow for “proper consultation.”

Watch more from Todd Lamirande in Ottawa

In her response, the Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown Indigenous Relations said communication was ongoing.

“The elected chiefs have had a look at the agreement…this has been outstanding for a long time,” Bennett said.

She said this was a Wet’suwet’en-led resolution and she was satisfied ”with the engagement” that had taken place so far.

Hereditary chiefs, whose office is in Smithers, B.C., have not responded to repeated requests for comment on this latest development from APTN News.

The nation is comprised of five clans, with 13 houses, each with a hereditary chief.

They claim a majority of hereditary chiefs oppose CGL, the company building a 670-km gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat on the west coast.

The company has signed multi-million-dollar impact benefit agreements with the elected bands. While two of the clan houses have erected protest camps along the pipeline route.

With files from Todd Lamirande and the Canadian Press


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