'We’ve got a real divide in the community:’ Wet’suwet’en Nation in turmoil - APTN NewsAPTN News

‘We’ve got a real divide in the community:’ Wet’suwet’en Nation in turmoil

Wet'suwet'en

Laurie Hamelin and Tamara Pimentel
APTN News
The battle over the CGL pipeline in British Columbia both on social media and in the press is dividing the Wet’suwet’en Nation some members say.

The two opposing sides have been in a very public dispute over Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) 670 km pipeline that will carry fracked natural gas from Dawson Creek, B.C., in the northeast, to Kitimat on the coast.

Hurtful messages on social media and intimidation within the community has driven the wedge between the two sides even further.

“The in-fighting has been going on for some time now,” said Troy Young.

“We’ve got a real divide in the community.  It’s sad, I’m fine with people being anti-pipeline, but I have the right to carry out what I want to do.”

Young is a Wet’suwet’en member born in Smithers, B.C. now living on Vancouver Island.

The 48 year old father of three said in a phone interview with APTN News that misinformed people and organizations in Canada and around the world are fueling the fire.

“People are saying the project doesn’t have our approval,” said Young.

“No one can say this pipeline doesn’t have our backing.  We were informed and people want it.”

Former elected council member from Witset First Nation, Gary Naziel of the Laksilyu Clan, was in leadership when the community signed a benefits agreement with CGL.

Naziel is a hereditary wing chief (sub chief) and works for Kyha Resources Inc.  He said the majority of the community members in Witset voted in favor of the pipeline.

“Everybody voted, everybody had a say,” said Naziel at his home in Witset. “The final decision was up to the council.”

Wet'suwet'en

(‘Our laws are not being followed and it’s disheartening to see that,’ says Gary Naziel of the Laksilyu Clan, in Witset First Nation near Smithers B.C. Photo: Tamara Pimentel/APTN)

Witset is the largest Band within Wet’suwet’en Nation with approximately 660 who live on-reserve and 1,130 who live off-reserve.

It’s located just over an hour north of the Gidim’ten and Unist’ot’en camps where an unknown number of people who say they’re asserting their rights over the land are hold-up.

“When we signed on, the elected council, half of the members were hereditary chiefs so the communication that’s not happening is not consulting with other hereditary chiefs,” said Naziel.

The world weighs in

In early January, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the B.C. Human Rights Commission urged Canada to stop construction on CGL until the project has Indigenous consent from impacted communities.

But on January 16, committee chair Noureddine Amir told media that he was unaware that CGL had broad Indigenous backing.

And when asked about gathering information, Amir admitted that the committee’s role does not include investigations.

In an open letter, Karen Ogen-Toews said she was shocked to learn the committee’s decision was made without research.

Ogen-Toews is the CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance and the former elected chief of Wet’suwet’en First Nation.

“The UN Committee’s statement and recommendations should simply and immediately be withdrawn, along with an apology to the 20 Nations,” said Ogen-Toews, in the letter.

“The committee should have been aware that the 20 First Nations participated extensively during five years of consultation on the pipeline, and have successfully negotiated agreements with Coastal GasLink.

“This is on public record.”

Wet'suwet'en

Ogen-Toews held the title of elected chief of Wet’suwet’en First Nation from 2010 to 2016 and was in office for consultations and signing of agreements.

In a phone interview with APTN recorded in November 2018, Ogen-Toews described the consultation process, the roles of hereditary and elected leadership, and the problems that arose among the nation.

“As far as I’m concerned, the hereditary chiefs look after their clan members and the land, the elected chiefs look after the members and everything under the sun with very few resources to do it,” said Ogen-Toews in the interview.

Once the fracked natural gas travels down the $6.6 billion pipeline it will be liquefied and shipped to markets in Asia.

Five of the six bands in Wet’suwet’en Nation signed on with the project, including 15 other First Nations on the route.

Along with revenue from Impact Benefits Agreements and Provincial Pipeline Agreements, Indigenous businesses will benefit from $620 million in contract work for the project’s right-of-way clearing, medical, security and camp management needs.

There is another $400 million in additional contract and employment opportunities for Indigenous and local B.C. communities during pipeline construction.

Young is excited about the pipeline project.

He’s the general manager and director of Kyah Resources Inc., a company owned by Witset First Nation.

Kyah Resources has a contract with CGL to provide work on the line – clearing activities, road building, maintenance and site prep.

Young said the pipeline will help lift Wet’suwet’en Nation from poverty.

“From my perspective this is a good opportunity because this is the first time there has been meaningful involvement with First Nations,” said Young.

“Look at all the projects that have taken place in the past, that have been pushed through regardless of what the local First Nations wanted.

“This pipeline can be a catalyst for great things, to get us out of being at the bottom of the rung.”

The Hereditary Chiefs

Wet'suwet'en

(Four of the five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Na’Moks is pictured here on the left)

But the controversial pipeline doesn’t have approval from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs representing the five clans.

They are adamant that ancestral laws give them control over their unceded territory, not elected leadership.

“The bands only have jurisdiction within the band boundaries,” said Hereditary Chief Na’Moks of the Tsayu Clan.

“Our law says this project can’t happen on the territory.”

The Indian Act forced the system of elected chief and councils on reserve lands with the goal of taking down ancestral political structures, but the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary system has survived for many thousands of years.

Na’Moks said it’s the hereditary chiefs’ duty to protect the territory.

“Their route is going along rivers, it will go over rivers and even in some instances it will go under,” said Na’Moks.

“190 kilometres of the proposed route will run through our territory.  It threatens our water, our salmon, and our rights, our title, our jurisdiction.”

The Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa Case

In 1997, hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Nations were the litigants in the land mark Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) case Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa, which transformed how Indigenous land title is considered.

According to hereditary chiefs, the case proves they have never ceded nor surrendered title to their traditional territory.

Naziel said elected and hereditary leadership haven’t followed the Wet’suwet’en way of making decisions together and that important traditional conversations historically happened in their feast hall.

“It’s been difficult because in the past 10 to 15 years I’ve been seeing lots of changes in our feast hall, our laws are not being followed and it’s disheartening to see that,” he said.

“It’s sad to see that your feast system is going downhill and you’re trying to fix it, but there’s nobody to turn to.”

Hereditary Chief Na’Moks is Young’s cousin. Their grandmother held the name Na’Moks.

Young said the issue of traditional law versus elected leadership isn’t simple.

“I respect our hereditary chiefs because they carry our culture and they have a very significant place in our culture, but I don’t think that they are the ones that should hold all the governing power,” said Young.

“I don’t think it’s a strong governance system with the way things have changed.  It’s an elected government every two years, if you told the communities they aren’t voting anymore they won’t accept that nowadays.

“These guys are trying to turn back the clock and say all these elections don’t matter.”

Wet'suwet'en

(Witset First Nation. Photo: Tamara Pimentel/APTN)

Young points out that Witset First Nation affirmed their support of the CGL pipeline in the band’s election last summer.

“I think it’s a telling sign that Witset continues to elect councils that are for the project,” said Young.

“They’ve had opportunities to elect in an anti-pipeline government, but didn’t and that tells the sentiment of the people in the community.

Pretty much all the communities up and down the line continue to vote in pro-pipeline councils.”

Last August, two of Wet’suweten’s strongest pipeline opponents ran for chief of Witset.

Freda Huson, the spokesperson and full time resident of the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre and her former partner, Warner Naziel, who now holds the name Hereditary Chief Smogelgem of the Laksamshu Clan.

That hereditary name, Smogelgem, was stripped from Gloria George by hereditary chiefs for supporting the pipeline.

“Freda and Warner both ran for chief and council, but they didn’t win,” said Young.

“They don’t have the support of the people to stop this thing.”

On Jan. 4, in response to the B.C. Supreme Court granting CGL an interlocutory injunction, the hereditary chiefs asserted their inherent jurisdiction over the territory by issuing the pipeline company an eviction notice.

The hereditary leaders ordered personnel to leave the area and the company complied.

Read More: 

Hereditary chiefs issue eviction notice to pipeline company in Wet’suwet’en territory

Hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in B.C. says LNG pipeline doesn’t have unanimous consent

“We will never change our mind on this project, we are the law of the land, we are following our law,” said Na’Moks.

APTN has been on the ground in the territory for over a week.

Gathering interviews from both sides of the dispute has been very difficult.

While rallies across the country in support of the protest camps steal the spotlight on social media, elected leadership in support of the project have been silent.

“That’s the way we were taught by our elders is to remain silent until you come to a decision or compromise,” Naziel said.

“Our elders never used to say ‘it’s my way or the highway’ there was no right or wrong, they always came to a compromise and moved on.  But nowadays the decision making that’s happening is not the Wet’suwet’en way.”

Wet'suwet'en

(A march in Ottawa in support of the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs. Photo: Brett Forester/APTN)

According to the hereditary chiefs, the pipeline betrays B.C.s commitment to reconciliation and the newly passed UNDRIP legislation and the leaders are now holding up construction in certain areas until an in-person meeting with Premier John Horgan is held.

But Young said it’s up to the Wet’suewet’en to work out the conflict.

“When the Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa case took place, Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan were successful because we had our hereditary chiefs in sync with our elected chiefs and everybody had the same concerns,” said Young.

“The two [hereditary and elected] have to go hand in hand to be able to carry out true governance and it’s not one over rides the other.  Everything now is out of step between the two and they need to come together and decide how they are going to move forward.

“The system broke down somewhere and it is going to be hard to mend, but I am hopeful that things do take place to get people back together.”

lhamelin@aptn.ca

tpimentel@aptn.ca

 

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