Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary chiefs gesture as they camp at a railway blockade near Edmonton last month, part of protests against British Columbia’s Coastal GasLink pipeline. CNS photo/Codie McLachlan, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: Don’t forget about justice in winter of discontent

  • March 14, 2020

It’s been a turbulent few months. Crowds blocking rail lines, protesters waving placards and RCMP officers barricading land are some of the dramatic images of discontent across Canada.

The instability centres around the proposed plan to run the $6-billion Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory in northwestern British Columbia. The total $40-billion project would link the pipeline to an export terminal in Kitimat.

On its website, Coastal GasLink displays a map of agreements it made with 20 First Nations band councils in the area. “We value the culture, lands and traditions of Indigenous groups,” says the corporation.

Hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory, however, reject the pipeline running through their land.

“We need them to understand that what they are doing is destroying our lands, our ecological sites, our burial sites,” a hereditary chief named Na’Moks was quoted as saying.

It was extremely disingenuous of Coastal GasLink to negotiate with First Nations band councils rather than the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. It’s a divide-and-rule tactic that pits Indigenous peoples against one another, especially over the economic benefits to First Nations, reportedly $620 million to be awarded in contracts and an expected 2,000 to 2,500 jobs.

The role of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief is determined before birth and is developed across the lifespan through a series of cultural practices, structures and events. The chiefs are tasked with protecting the land, culture and people within the 22,000 square kilometres of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

In contrast, First Nations band councils are colonial structures artificially created and imposed by the 1876 Indian Act. Members are elected, report to the federal government and largely administer health care, education and other federal government responsibilities.

Wet’suwet’en territory, like many areas in British Columbia and across Canada, is unceded land, meaning that Indigenous peoples who lived there never signed treaties or agreements that would allow European settlers to take control of that land.

This was affirmed in 1997, when the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged that Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs hold land rights and title over their ancestral lands.

Coastal GasLink needs to negotiate directly with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. If an agreement can’t be worked out, the corporation should either abandon the project or build the pipeline around — not through — Wet’suwet’en traditional land. Yes, it would be more expensive for the corporation to do so, but its long-term profits would likely offset the short-term costs and the corporation would be upholding the right of the Wet’suwet’en to their land.

Federal and provincial governments also need to solidify Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous land rights in Canada. It’s encouraging to see the March 1 draft agreement between Wet’suwet’en leaders and government ministers over rights and land titles (but there was reportedly still no agreement over the pipeline at press time).

In his papal encyclical Laudato Si’ , Pope Francis says “it is essential to show special care for Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed.

“For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best,” he writes.

Viewing the situation through the lens of Laudato Si’ — On Care for Our Common Home,  we can go beyond the immediate matter of upholding Wet’suwet’en land rights to probe broader issues such as those being voiced in the nation-wide protests.

Does short-term economic gain justify the long-term environmental damage caused not only by the pipeline construction but our continued reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels? Why aren’t we developing new green technologies and energy sources rather than relying on activities that destroy the environment?

Have we lost basic values of community, love for the poor and vulnerable, and generosity in pursuit of our materialistic way of life?

Canadians need to resist contributing to the backlash in which Indigenous peoples are being mistreated for allegedly hindering Canada’s economic growth. There are broader questions of justice and fairness to bear in mind.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.) 

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