Protesters stand at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., on Monday Feb. 24, 2020, during a protest in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

B.C. VIEWS: Pipeline dispute highlights need for clarity

As the B.C. treaty process grinds on, uncertainty remains

It would be a mistake to assume that the dispute between Wet’suwet’en traditional leaders and the Coastal GasLink pipeline project can be resolved in a column.

It has taken generations to get to this point; it will take more than 550 words to get past it.

What the dispute has revealed, however, is the absolute urgency for action.

Not the kind that some suggest. Sending in the troops, or ordering police to dismantle blockades has failed to produce longterm solutions in the past. It will again.

What’s needed is a commitment by First Nations, provincial and federal governments to resolve the longstanding land title and governance issues that lie at the core of the dispute.

The Wet’suwet’en blockade is the symptom of a bigger problem. It is a byproduct of British Columbia’s messy and unfinished treaty process, and a failed and broken federal Indian Act.

How dysfunctional it has become can be seen in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation itself. While some British Columbians may have just heard about Gaslink’s plan to build a $6 billion pipeline from Northeastern B.C. to a $40 billion gas liquefaction plant and export terminal at Kitimat, the Wet’suwet’en have been debating it for years.

The discussions were not easy, and even today the debate is polarizing the community. But in the end, the elected band councils supported the project, arguing construction would provide opportunity and employment for their members.

What Coastal Gaslink failed to do was convince the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

And there’s the rub.

Elected band councils are the product of the Indian Act – a notoriously paternal piece of 19th century legislation. Its primary function was to promote the rapid assimilation and cultural extinction of First Nations people across Canada. It brought residential schools, subjugated women, squelched traditional languages, and even barred dancing and the wearing of regalia.

It also provided a mechanism for bands to manage their own reserve lands through elected band councils.

The challenge in B.C. is that reserve lands make up only a fraction of the traditional territory claimed by First Nations.

And because few treaties have ever been signed in this province, these First Nations have never relinquished their title or rights to that land – a point supported by the Canadian Supreme Court in its 1997 Delgamuukw ruling.

It is this traditional territory that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim authority over.

That claim has created a simple narrative: Traditional leaders, defending traditional territory from colonial and industrial incursion.

Dismissed in this narrative, of course, is the support from the 20 First Nations along the pipeline route and the extensive consultations with those nations that have taken place to get to this point.

The question of who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en is something the Wet’suwet’en will have to decide themselves.

But it is a question that will continue to be asked in other Indigenous communities until the issue of land claims in B.C. is resolved. The treaty process – moving as slowly as it is – will not only define aboriginal rights and title, but provide agreed-upon governance structures.

Without that resolution there will be no clarity, no certainty, and little chance of the economic prosperity so many First Nations people are calling for.

Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor. Email him at greg.knill@blackpress.ca.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coastal GasLink

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. firefighters only responding to most life-threatening calls during COVID-19 pandemic

The directive comes after province spoke with paramedics, fire services, according to top doctor

Surrey city council moving to virtual meetings

For public hearings, people can register to speak via telephone

‘An extra $220 every 90 days’: B.C. patients pay more dispensing fees due to prescription limits

Kelowna woman says it’s outrageous to charge for refills every 30 days

COVID-19: Daily update on the pandemic in Surrey, White Rock, Delta and beyond

APRIL 4: Two people in Delta fined for trying to re-sell N95 masks

33-storey highrise proposal coming to Surrey council, first of three phases

Second and third phases include 36-storey and 31-storey towers

‘Better days will return’: Queen Elizabeth delivers message amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Queen said crisis reminds her of her first address during World War II in 1940

Emergency aid portal opens Monday, cash could be in bank accounts by end of week: Trudeau

Emergency benefit will provide $2,000 a month for those who have lost their income due to COVID-19

Education, not enforcement: B.C. bylaw officers keeping a watch on physical distancing

A kind word, it turns out, has usually been all people need to hear

COVID-19: Hospitals remain safe for childbirth, say Vancouver Island care providers

North Island Hospital has been asked to share its perinatal COVID-19 response plan

Insurance shock for B.C. condo owners

Claim-free two-year-old townhouse complex told premium will nearly triple

Canadian cadets to mark 103rd anniversary of Vimy Ridge April 9 virtually

Idea of Captain Billie Sheridan in Williams Lake, B.C. who wondered what to do in times of COVID-19

B.C. VIEWS: Pandemic shows need for adequate care home staffing

Seniors in B.C. care homes face challenging times

Most Read