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

Maple Ridge author launches new fantasy series

Brooke Carter’s first book, The Stone of Sorrow, comes out April 7

Social media a blessing and a curse during time of crisis: B.C. communication expert

‘In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable,’ says SFU’s Peter Chow-White

Friends surpise recently married couple with COVID-19 friendly reception on Pitt Meadows street

Anastasija and Joshua Davis saw shattered plan turns into a reception many will never forget

Lack of education playing role in Fraser North students missing out on mental health services

2018 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey notes students do not know where to turn to for help

School District 42 provides update on continued learning plan

Superintendent Sylvia Russell says staff will be in touch with Ridge Meadows students and families

Canada will make sure masks sent by China meet quality standards: Trudeau

Chinese Embassy tweeted that China was sending 30,000 medical masks along with gowns, gloves and goggles

B.C. issues guidelines about distancing, reusable bags to grocery stores amid COVID-19

Hand sanitizer and markers to keep lines two metres are apart are needed, province says

No plans to call in military right now to enforce COVID-19 quarantine: Trudeau

Trudeau unveils $7.5M for Kids Help Phone, $9M for vulnerable seniors amid COVID-19

QUIZ: How much do you know about the Olympics?

Put your knowledge to the test with these 12 questions

B.C. announces $3M for food banks to increase capacity during COVID-19

It is not clear how much of the money will flow towards Greater Victoria food banks

B.C. is seeing the highest rate of COVID-19 recovery in Canada, and there’s a few reasons why

British Columbia was one of the first to see rise in COVID-19 cases, and has also switched up testing

B.C. Ferries passengers staying away, as asked, during COVID-19 pandemic

Ferry corporation says ridership down 70-80 per cent over the last week and a half

Most Read