Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs entered a second day of talks with provincial and federal ministers to end the stalemate over a natural gas pipeline and the three weeks of nation-wide protests it sparked.
In Smithers this morning Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said they felt positive about continuing discussions after a productive three-hour meeting with the chiefs yesterday to lay the groundwork.
The province is also relying on 25 hours of conversations held with the hereditary chiefs in the past week, and ongoing partnerships on environmental and stewardship initiatives to help lead discussions.
“We have a relationship already,” said Fraser. “The important thing is we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to the complex and difficult issues.”
Yesterday B.C. Premier John Horgan said he won’t back down in his support of the 670-km project, but added the issue was “without a doubt” the toughest challenge he’s faced since he took the top job in 2017.
Protests have been ongoing nationwide since early February. Around two dozen people have been arrested in B.C. this week alone, including 14 at a blocked rail line in New Hazelton and six in Vancouver. Two more were arrested at the B.C. Legislature Thursday.
The hereditary chiefs are calling the meetings in Smithers a “first step” to further talks they insist on holding with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Horgan.
Yesterday Horgan said that while he was open to meeting with the hereditary chiefs himself, he felt Fraser was the best voice to have at the table right now.
Bennett seemed to downplay the possibility of direct talks with the prime minister, saying all parties need to get through some hard work first, and that she and Fraser are the ministers to see that through.
“It’s really important that Minister Fraser and I have been delegated by the premier and the prime minister to do this work,” Bennett said. “That’s why we’re here and that’s the work we’re going to do.”
Fraser added it’s too early to speculate on a resolution that may come this week, but said he has an open mind and hinted he is willing to extend the scheduled talks beyond today.
The hereditary chiefs stated in a release yesterday they will approach the discussions in an atmosphere of respect.
Twenty elected band councils, including the five on Wet’suwet’en territory, voted in favour of the pipeline after extensive consultations and a signed benefits agreement with CGL. However the hereditary chiefs and their supporters argue the councils, established under the Indian Act, do not have authority under traditional law to make decisions on the Nation’s or the land’s behalf. Their jurisdiction is limited to the reserve lands.
The hereditary chiefs agreed to the start of the talks yesterday on the condition CGL pause its pre-construction of the pipeline in the Morice River area, and the RCMP cease patrols of protest camps on the side the service road leading to the worksite.
Yesterday CGL agreed to pause its work for two days and the RCMP confirmed it would cease patrols. For their part the chiefs’ assured the police they would continue to keep the road clear of obstructions.
“We believe these conditions provide the space we need to be able to sit down at the table in good faith and a positive path forward,” stated hereditary chief Na’moks (John Ridsdale). We hope the RCMP and CGL see the wisdom in that and help create the conditions for positive and respectful discussions. We are so close and have called on the provincial and federal governments to support this de-escalation of activities so that this issue can be resolved.”
– with files from Katya Slepian and Canadian Press