March 16, 2019 is already being heralded as an historic day in Wet’suwet’en country.
At a smoke feast in Witset Saturday, the Laksilyu (Small Frog Clan) hosted dignitaries from the other Wet’suwet’en clans, other First Nations, local municipal government, the federal NDP and the B.C. government, including Premier John Horgan, to announce the beginning of a new process of reconciliation.
Chief Na’Moks (John Ridsdale), speaking on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, said optimism is running high because they finally feel like they’re being heard.
“Because of the past, and this is decades and decades of us trying to come to a point of having elected officials, whether it be provincial or federal, acknowledge that we have rights and title on the land,” he said. “We had to remind them they only had presumed authority, we’ve never ever given up our authority as hereditary chiefs or as Wet’suwet’en. Today marks that’s their path, it’s a unique path that we’re on, and the willingness of the Wet’suwet’en to work with them on this and put them on the right path. It is historic because in British Columbia this is a first.”
During the six-hour feast, speaker after speaker rose and invoked the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia — frequently referred to as Delgamuukw-Gisday’way after the two plaintiffs who represented 50 Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan chiefs in the case. The plaintiffs in lower court lost that landmark case in which the two First Nations sued the Crown for Indigenous rights and title over 58,000 square kilometres of northwest British Columbia, but the Supreme Court of Canada decision remains an oft-cited ruling in subsequent proceedings.
In the appeal, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, which has never been held, but affirmed Indigenous rights and title are guaranteed under the 1982 Constitution Act and established oral histories as legitimate evidence for asserting rights and title, among other things. Since then First Nations in B.C. have pursued various relationships with the Province including treaty implementations, incremental treaty negotiations, resolutions outside the treaty process, litigation, and revenue-sharing arrangements.
Those processes did not mesh with the Wet’suwet’en, Ridsdale said.
“[The Province] said, we need to go into mitigation, not litigation, that’s what the treaty process brought in and there was no part of it that suited us,” he explained. “We stayed in it until there was absolutely no other avenue available and we stepped out.”
All parties agree the process launched this past weekend is different. Peter Grant, the lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en, was the first to speak at the feast and outlined the agreed upon parameters.
First, he said, the discussions that are about to begin are non-transactional, meaning the Wet’suwet’en do not have to give anything up to sit at the table. Second, it is being controlled by the leadership of the Wet’suwet’en, not the government of B.C.
“It’s about recognition by the government of your rights and title; it’s about implementation of the affirmation of your rights and title,” Grant said.
An important aspect of the process, Grant noted, is the appointment of an independent emissary to represent the B.C. government. Both sides agreed on Murray Rankin, the long-serving NDP MP for Victoria who recently announced he would not be running in the 2019 federal election.
Grant said this is the process the Wet’suwet’en leaders wanted when they addressed the Supreme Court in Delgamuukw-Gisday’way.
“They spoke and they said, this Court should tell the government how it is going to relate to our title,” he said. “Now, you have a premier who is here and a government who says, we want to do that. So, this is different than anything else going on in the province.”
“I’ve been visiting territories around the province, talking to elders, talking to leaders trying to find the best way forward,” he said. “It’s not a cookie cutter approach; I think that we’ve learned that from the failure of the treaty process. There are many nations still in that process and they want to see an outcome. There are some that have come to resolution outside of that — the Nisga’a is an example of resolution — but each nation has different issues and each nation has to have a different way of going forward and that’s what we’ve heard here with Wet’suwet’en and I’m sure we’ll find it other places as well.”
Ridsdale believes the premier and current provincial government are sincere.
“The willingness is there on their part,” he said. “In my speech today, I said this is an olive branch to the Province of British Columbia because of past wrongs, and they’re actually intelligent enough to know that and step up and do this. Having the premier in our feast hall here today to make sure he fully understands where we’re coming from and where we need to go together is actually a good step in the right direction and we are not there to listen to them, they are there to listen to us.”
If the process goes as planned, Ridsdale suggested non-Indigenous people will have to get used to the idea of Indigenous rule, but said people shouldn’t notice much of a difference in practical terms.
“There won’t be that much change in there, except we’re going to be a little stiffer on the monitoring along the land, to make sure the environmental standards that are supposed to be there are actually upheld and for businesses that come on to the territory. They’ve always wanted surety, well, the fact is they would never get surety from us because there was always that assumed and presumed authority of the Province of British Columbia. Well, that assumption will have to go because it will be simply implementation through legislation that we are the authority.”
That being said, people should not worry that economic development would be curtailed under Wet’suwet’en authority, he noted.
“We’re not there to stop progress; we’ve always been a part of progress,” he said. “I think it has to be remembered that the largest sawmill on this planet is on Wet’suwet’en territory. We did not stop that, we are always in there making sure the path forward is good, but all we need to do is make sure they don’t forget who was here first.”
The premier acknowledged that ancient history and said he is committed to reconciliation.
“I believe there’s a way forward and as the Delgamuukw case said, rights and title exist, but also we are going to be here and we need to be here together,” Horgan said. “What I heard around the room, from leaders from all of the clans, was this is a hopeful beginning for what will hopefully be a resolution of a longstanding grievance between the Wet’suwet’en people and the Crown as represented by federal and provincial governments.”