SMITHERS, B.C. — Hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia say they will sign an agreement with the federal and provincial governments that affirms their title and rights.
At the centre of the dispute is Wet’suwet’en opposition to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territory, which set off demonstrations and blockades that shut down large parts of the national economy in February.
A joint statement from the governments and Wet’suwet’en chiefs released Thursday says they remain committed to implementing the rights and title of the First Nation through the memorandum of understanding.
No details of the memorandum, which was agreed to in February, have been released.
The statement says there’s a lot of work ahead in the negotiation process, including how the three governments will work together.
The Wet’suwet’en have invited B.C.’s Indigenous relations minister, Scott Fraser, and Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, to sign the agreement on May 14.
“We look forward to advancing this important work to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title as three equal governments,” the statement says.
“As negotiations proceed on the affirmation and implementation of Wet’suwet’en rights and title, we will move forward with transparency and openness, and will be further engaging with Wet’suwet’en house groups, neighbouring nations, local governments, stakeholders and the public.”
Although details have not been made public, the memorandum has been framed as addressing broader land claims rather than an agreement over the pipeline. It was reached after days of discussions in Smithers and work on the pipeline resumed after it was announced.
Protests across the country disrupted passenger and freight train service for more than three weeks.
Coastal GasLink is building a 670-kilometre pipeline from northeastern B.C. to an LNG Canada export terminal in Kitimat, but the hereditary house chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en say it has no authority without their consent.
The Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils. A majority of its councils have approved the pipeline, but some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose it running through their traditional territory.
The dispute also involves other unsettled land rights and title issues, including who has the right to negotiate with governments and corporations, the fact that the land is not covered by a treaty and remains unceded, and a 1997 court case that recognized the hereditary chiefs’ authority and the exclusive right of the Wet’suwet’en peoples to the land but did not specify the boundaries.
The pipeline first generated widespread national protests in January 2019 when the RCMP enforced an injunction obtained by the company to dismantle obstacles on a remote logging road in northern B.C.
Larger protests were held across the country this February after the RCMP enforced a second injunction.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2020.
The Canadian Press