Eight hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation agreed on Thursday to undertake seven days of talks with the British Columbia government with the goal of de-escalating a standoff over a controversial pipeline.
In a statement, the chiefs said they remain committed to peace and “will pursue all avenues to achieve a peaceful resolution.”
The talks will be called “Wiggus,” which the chiefs defined as “respect for all living-beings, starting with oneself.”
David Pfeiffer, president of Coastal GasLink (CGL), and the B.C. premier’s office also issued a statement welcoming the talks.
“This Wiggus/Respect Table is an opportunity for all parties to work in good faith towards de-escalation, and we view this announcement as a positive sign that all involved are determined to find a peaceful resolution,” the statement said.
Premier John Horgan will not attend the discussions.
The chiefs previously refused to meet with B.C. because Horgan chose to send Indigenous Affairs minister Scott Fraser in his place, saying they wanted to meet decision-maker to decision-maker. Horgan then appointed NDP MP Nathan Cullen as a liaison.
The hereditary chiefs assert that they have jurisdiction over their unceded traditional territory, and say construction of the $6.6-billion pipeline cannot proceed without permission from the chiefs through whose territory the proposed 670-kilometre route passes.
They issued an eviction notice to the company earlier this month as an assertion of this jurisdiction.
The completed project would carry fracked natural gas from Dawson Creek to an LNG export facility near Kitimat, B.C.
CGL has negotiated 20 benefit agreements with all elected First Nation governments along the route.
The province has signed agreements with all 20 elected governments as well.
B.C. Supreme Court granted the pipeline company an interlocutory injunction on Dec. 31.
The judge ruled that the project has all the required permits and authorizations to proceed.
The ruling included an order for the RCMP to remove any obstructions and arrest anyone police have “reasonable or probable ground” to believe has knowledge of the order and is contravening it.
The Mounties said they will respect the talks and not take action to enforce the injunction by removing obstructions on the Morice West Forest Service Road leading to the company’s work sites.
“While additional resources may be noted in the Smithers-Houston area, the resources will be on standby during the seven-day period,” the statement said, referring to growing police presence.
Earlier Thursday, the hereditary chiefs and their supporters called for a public investigation into the way the RCMP is controlling access along the road.
The RCMP has said it set up a checkpoint along the Morice West Forest Service Road south of Houston to prevent the dispute from escalating after patrol officers discovered hazards along the road.
But the chiefs along with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs allege that the Mounties are unlawfully restricting access on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
“We cannot be criminalized for using our law to access our lands, our foods, our medicine, our way of life,” said Chief Na’Moks, who dialled into a news conference in Vancouver.
RCMP arrested 14 people when it enforced a temporary injunction last year. The people have since been released, but RCMP was criticized internationally after it was reported that heavily armed Mounties were prepared to use lethal force in deconstructing the barricade.
On Wednesday in Prince George, Horgan said he believes the hereditary chiefs will come around.
“I don’t expect the leadership to say tomorrow that they love the pipeline. That’s not my expectation. But there needs to be a legitimate understating that the majority of the people in the region are going to benefit for this, and that’s what dialogue will produce.”
Na’Moks (John Ridsdale), hereditary chief of the Tsayu Clan, has said the pipeline will never receive consent from leaders of the traditional governance system.
“We will never change our mind on this project, we are the law of the land, we are following our law,” he said.
With files from the Canadian Press