Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and senior government ministers reached a proposed arrangement Sunday following days of discussions over a pipeline dispute that prompted solidarity protests and transport disruptions across Canada.
Details of the draft deal, which centres on Indigenous rights and land titles, were not disclosed, however, and work on the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline at the heart of the dispute was set to resume Monday.
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said they made progress during the talks.
“We, I believe, have come to a proposed arrangement that will also honour the protocols of the Wet’suwet’en people and clans,” Bennett said in a news conference in Smithers, B.C. “What we’ve worked on this weekend needs to go back to those clans and then we have agreed as ministers that we will come back to sign if it is agreed upon by the Nation.”
She said the proposal is about making sure “that this never happens again, that rights holders will always be at the table.”
British Columbia Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said the talks have helped address the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en, but there’s still a “disagreement” over the natural gas pipeline going through traditional territory.
Chief Woos, one of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, said the draft represents a milestone for everyone involved but that it hasn’t satisfied all of their concerns.
He stressed that the hereditary chiefs remain opposed to the pipeline in their traditional territory.
“We are going to be continuing to look at some more conversations with B.C. and of course with the proponent and further conversation with the RCMP out on the territory,” Woos said. “It’s not over yet. We are just looking at more work in that area.”
Shortly after the proposal was announced, Coastal GasLink issued a statement saying it would resume construction activities in the Morice River area, which is near the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, on Monday.
“Coastal GasLink appreciates that a path has been identified to address significant issues of Aboriginal Title and Rights of the Wet’suwet’en people while recognizing that Coastal GasLink is fully permitted and remains on track for a 2023 in-service date,” president David Pfeiffer said in the statement.
He added the company “remains committed to dialogue and engagement” with all Indigenous groups along its route.
“We are encouraged by Chief Woos statement that he is open to dialogue and look forward to an opportunity to meet with the hereditary chiefs,” Pfeiffer said.
The company had agreed to pause construction during the talks between the hereditary chiefs and the ministers, which began Thursday.
RCMP had also pledged to cease patrols along the Morice West Forest Service Road during the discussions. The Mounties did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
The dispute over the pipeline has spurred solidarity protests across the country that have disrupted passenger and freight train service over the last three weeks. Police have recently moved to dismantle some of the blockades.
The Wet’suwet’en are governed by both a traditional hereditary chief system and elected band councils. A majority of its councils have approved the pipeline, but some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose it running through their traditional territory.
Gary Naziel, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary subchief who wants the pipeline built, said he hasn’t seen the proposed arrangement.
“What’s done behind closed doors hasn’t been shared yet,” he said. “But it will be settled in the Feast Hall — all this stuff that’s been going on has to come to Feast Hall. We will deal with it there.”
Naziel said no date has been set to discuss the proposal, but he noted it’s a good first step and he’s satisfied that the pipeline is going ahead.
“The projects are going forward so that way we can get the benefits for our education and language,” he said. “If everybody is satisfied, that’s fine by me. Internally we need to fix things in the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
“We already know we had titles and rights to this land. We know we own this land. We didn’t have to send people across the country and start riots and all this. They said it was peaceful blockades but it was far from peaceful in some places.”
The dispute also involves other unsettled land rights and title issues, including who has the right to negotiate with governments and corporations, the fact that the land is not covered by a treaty and remains unceded, and a 1997 court case that recognized the hereditary chiefs’ authority and the exclusive right of the Wet’suwet’en peoples to the land but did not specify the boundaries.
Lawyer Peter Grant, who represented the Wet’suwet’en and neighbouring Gitxsan First Nation, said the proposal is not a treaty.
“It’s a draft arrangement, but I think it’s very powerful,” he said.
The secretary of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake said activists have decided to maintain their rail blockade on the territory south of Montreal, at least for now.
Kenneth Deer said the Mohawks want more clarification on the agreement between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the federal government before making a final decision.
“It’s a big decision to decide to take down the barricade or not, and they want to make sure they have everything before they make a decision,” he said Sunday outside the entrance to the barricade, where Mohawk flags flew from a tent and pointed wooden shelter protected by low concrete barriers.
Deer, who said he’s been in contact with hereditary chiefs, said there were good things that came out of the meeting in B.C., as well as “some things that were not so good.”
He said the agreement includes discussions on who are custodians of the land, as well as a recognition of the hereditary chiefs, which he described as “significant.”
“However, the pipeline is not resolved, and that a very big issue, not only for the Wet’suwet’en chiefs but for everybody,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 1, 2020.
— with files from Colette Derworiz in Edmonton and Morgan Lowrie in Kahnawake
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press