The B.C. and federal governments have completed a video ceremony to sign an agreement with Wet’suwet’en heredity chiefs in northwestern B.C. to recognize their land rights, a deal rejected by elected band councils.
The memorandum of understanding was signed May 14 by hereditary chiefs meeting in Smithers, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations Scott Fraser from Victoria and federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett from Toronto, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Wet’suwet’en elected and some hereditary chiefs protested outside the office of the hereditary chiefs in Smithers as the ceremony went on, with one saying “we need to fix our feast system before we move on to title and rights.” Some leaders questioned the legitimacy of hereditary chiefs to represent the people.
Pandemic restrictions played a part in the lack of consultation with Wet’suwet’en members, some of whom say they didn’t get a look at the final text until May 9, again by video link.
“Those are internal issues,” Fraser said in an interview with Black Press after the ceremony. “I’ve heard some of those concerns. Following that I’ve worked with Minister Bennett. We’ve called all the elected chiefs and heard their concerns again. They were pretty much all around the process that they said was not appropriate, not sufficient.”
We invited representatives of the Office of Wet’suwet’en back to discuss our concerns. Then we found ourselves in the middle of a pandemic & unable to meet or gather. Suddenly we were told on April 30, 2020 – the MOU would be signed without us.
— Chief Maureen Luggi (@ChiefLuggi) May 15, 2020
Fraser’s comments echoed those of Premier John Horgan on May 13. “What we do know is the Wet’suwet’en have to figure this out themselves,” Horgan said. “How they govern themselves is up to them.”
Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, a former B.C. Indigenous relations minister whose constituency extends into the 22,000-square-km territory claimed by the Wet’suwet’en, pointed to a key flaw in the deal is that isn’t just matter of consultation. The agreement “will work towards eliminating the Wet’suwet’en peoples’ right to vote on their leadership concerning their rights and title,” Rustad said in a statement on the eve of the signing. “In my opinion, this is just wrong!”
Fraser said the role of hereditary chiefs in deciding land rights and title isn’t created by the memorandum, but by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 decision known as Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa.
The memorandum was agreed to as B.C. and Canada dealt with widespread railway and road blockades targeting the Coastal Gaslink pipeline that gathered national and international support. Fraser acknowledged that the agreement doesn’t change the opposition of some hereditary chiefs, or the approval of elected councils in Wet’suwet’en communities who have signed benefit agreements for the pipeline.
Asked if he expects further protests actions over Coastal Gaslink, Fraser replied: “I don’t have a crystal ball for the future, but us working together with respect and recognition of all parties, I think it will help us resolve issues.”
Rustad said the agreement doesn’t meet the requirements of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which the B.C. NDP government embraced with legislation in the fall of 2019, the first jurisdiction in the world to do so.
“According to UNDRIP, Indigenous people have the right to participate in decision making in matters that affects their rights,” Rustad said. “This has been ignored in this instance. The hereditary chiefs have NOT engaged with the Wet’suwet’en people. They have not sought their consent.”