Industry, government signing agreements with wrong chiefs

Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition director reminds of hereditary chiefs’ authority.

TransCanada’s press release about their Coastal GasLink pipeline project having 100 per cent sign on with all the elected Indigenous bands is an incredibly misleading statement.

What the average Canadian does not know is that some of those bands (band councils) only have jurisdiction within their reservation boundary while the hereditary chiefs have jurisdiction over the traditional territories. It’s the same as a municipality, like Smithers or Terrace, that only has jurisdiction within their city limits and can’t sign development agreements for projects in Telkwa, Thornhill or rural areas.

In the case of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan, the hereditary system has been tested in court several times and has helped form the very laws from which most aboriginal rights and title cases have been based. “The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs’ have never ceded nor surrendered their territory, nor have we lost it to war,” from time immemorial the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs mandate has been and continues today and into the future is to protect the land and its people. The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs do not endorse nor support pipeline projects that threaten the health and well-being of our lands and our people.” –DebbiePierre, executive director of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.

In a nutshell, the Band Council doesn’t have jurisdiction over traditional territories regardless of impact benefit agreements, so why is TransCanada touting this in the press as if they do? This isn’t about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for Bands to sign on — I don’t begrudge any Bands for signing these agreements, as money is needed for all the work they have to do to support their communities.

What I do begrudge are the repeated efforts of industry and the complicity of the B.C. government in creating these deals with band councils when they know there are hereditary systems they need to consult. First Nations have won more than 200 consecutive court cases in Canada around this very sort of issue — governments failing to consult the appropriate First Nations leaders. Touting these signed deals in the press creates unnecessary division and conflict in communities that have already been pushed to the margins.

Consider it this way: You are a teenager with a brand new driver’s licence. You ask your parents if you can borrow their car and they say no. Instead of accepting this answer, you turn to your high school teacher (someone you view as a potential figure of authority) and ask them if you can borrow your parents’ car. It just doesn’t make any sense. Your teacher is someone in a leadership role but he or she does not have decision making power over your parents’ car. Imagine going home to your parents telling them your teacher said it was okay for your to borrow their car? Imagine government and industry standing up and saying they have signed Impact Benefit Agreements with all the teachers for the use of your parents’ car. It’s ridiculous, right? As a taxpayer, I’m tired of paying for governments to continuously repeat these same mistakes and stand idly by as industry holds up Impact Benefit Agreements in the media as assurance a project is going to happen.

This creates poor investment climate in B.C. and seems to be playing pretty fast and loose with investors’ money. In the end, Hereditary Chiefs can launch a court case (which they always win) and the taxpayers are on the hook, yet again, for government and industry to continue making these same mistakes over and over. We need to solve this issue.

Imagine if those hereditary chiefs could put those legal funds into their community? Imagine if taxpayers didn’t have to continue bailing out governments for repeatedly losing in court over the same issue? That money would be better spent on actually creating a genuine pathway to reconciliation and community economic development.

This misleading marketing tactic by TransCanada does not put this project any closer to being built. Communities throughout the Northwest want economic development but proponents need to act in good faith and engage with the right authorities and decision makers in a way that respects free, prior and informed consent. It is, after all, the law.

–Shannon McPhail is a mother of two, former welder & hunting guide, recent graduate of SFU’s Community Economic Development program, and executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, an organization she co-founded that has twice been recognized as one of Canada’s top 10 most effective and innovative organizations.

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