VANCOUVER — Leaders of a First Nation in northern British Columbia who say they’ll never consent to a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory have agreed to seven days of meetings with the province.
The Office of the Wet’suwet’en issued a statement Thursday afternoon on behalf of eight hereditary chiefs saying they have agreed to the discussions in an effort to de-escalate the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“The hereditary chiefs maintain their commitment to peace and will pursue all avenues available to achieve a peaceful resolution,” it says.
The premier’s office also welcomed the meetings as an opportunity for all parties to work in good faith together.
The chiefs have asked for a face-to-face meeting with Premier John Horgan while declining to speak with him on the phone.
But deputy communications director George Smith said the premier will not be sitting at the table.
He said Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser will lead the provincial team, while former New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen will be the “neutral” liaison between parties.
Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with 20 elected First Nations along the pipeline’s 670-kilometre route from northeastern B.C. to an export terminal in Kitimat but the hereditary clan chiefs say it has no authority without their consent.
The B.C. Supreme Court granted the company an injunction on Dec. 31. The order called for the removal of any obstructions including cabins and gates on any roads, bridges or work sites the company has been authorized to use.
It also gives authorization to the RCMP to arrest and remove anyone police have “reasonable or probable grounds” to believe has knowledge of the order and is contravening it.
The enforcement of a previous injunction a year ago resulted in the arrests of 14 people.
The RCMP said before the agreement was reached on Thursday, “efforts with respect to logistics and resource deployments had been scheduled in support of anticipated police enforcement.”
Police 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 says.
Earlier Thursday, the hereditary clan chiefs and their supporters called for a public investigation into the way the RCMP are controlling access along the road.
The RCMP have said they 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.
The coalition has submitted a complaint to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, asking the chairperson to initiate a policy complaint and public interest investigation.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the civil liberties association, said the application of the RCMP’s enforcement at the checkpoint has been “inconsistent, arbitrary and discriminatory.”
Walia said the coalition has submitted eight first-hand accounts from people turned away as part of the complaint. Some were told only lawyers licensed to practise in B.C. would be allowed through, or only hereditary chiefs on a pre-approved list.
“RCMP officers at the checkpoint have cited a range of inconsistent and shifting policies and procedures to those who are turned away,” she told the news conference.
“Most of these do not in any way correlate to the stated goal of public safety.”
Officers check and record the identification of each person who arrives at the checkpoint, she said.
Irina Ceric, a non-practising lawyer who tried to visit supporters at a camp beyond the checkpoint, said she was turned away one day because she didn’t have a two-way radio and tire chains but she was allowed through the next day with no questions from a different officer about her equipment.
No one from the RCMP was available for an interview Thursday, but spokeswoman Janelle Shoihet said in an email that the Mounties have shared their protocol with the hereditary chiefs.
“The checkpoint was established to address safety concerns relating to the hazards including fallen trees, gasoline caches and tire piles that were intentionally placed along the roadway,” she said.
Officers at the checkpoint are also trying to prevent further escalation of “the ongoing breach” of the injunction, she said.
The protocol allows for the entry of hereditary chiefs, elected chiefs and government officials, lawyers registered to practise law with the Law Society of B.C., and other persons providing food, medicine or other supplies and services required for the well-being and safety of persons behind the blockades, Shoihet said.
The RCMP has made significant efforts to document and record all decisions and interactions at the checkpoint and are fully prepared to participate in any public complaint process, she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press