Big Chiefs Vie for Supremacy in B.C.
If you want to get your way out west in the 21st century, but can't win at the ballot box, becoming a public nuisance is the next best thing. That's the message coming out of this past weekend's hi-jinks in Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, D.C., and elsewhere. It's also the message of the agreement the Liberal government in Ottawa and the socialist NDP government in British Columbia have recently struck with a handful of hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
In case the pandemic and the George Floyd riots have pushed the recent history of the Wet’suwet’en out of your mind, let me quickly remind you of their situation. They are a First Nations community based in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, who found themselves at the center of a firestorm back in February. Protests erupted across Canada "in solidarity" with the Wet’suwet’en, who objected to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline across their land. Or, at least, that was the narrative pushed by Canadian media. In reality, as Mike Smyth explained in B.C's The Province at the time,
The First Nations directly impacted by the Coastal GasLink pipeline — and the thousands of Indigenous people they represent — largely support the project. All 20 First Nations along the pipeline route have signed benefit-sharing agreements with the pipeline company through their elected band councils. That includes the multiple elected councils of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. But the protesters have aligned themselves with five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline, and not the 13,000 Indigenous British Columbians represented by all the band councils that support it.
In fact, as I wrote back in February, roughly one-third of the people working on the pipeline are native, and a great many of the Wet’suwet’en people stand behind the elected chiefs who signed onto the original agreements with TC Energy. They were critical of those five hereditary chiefs who -- as Wet’suwet’en member Troy Young put it -- chose to do "everything via media and not following proper protocol." And they were grateful for the job opportunities afforded them by resource development on their land, and concerned about the consequences of killing or altering a multi-billion dollar project at such a late stage (Troy Young again: "If the project were to be halted, the loss would be probably insurmountable. Nobody's ever going to invest here again").
But the media delivered. Canadian news outlets like the CBC churned out wall-to-wall, breathless coverage of the plight of the five hereditary chiefs on the one hand (who, they continuously suggested, were really more legitimate than the elected chiefs, since democracy is a western import, although there has been a system in place for the election of chiefs for nearly 150 years) and of the occasional arrest of protesters for such minor offences as blockading major rail lines and arson). By the end of the month the federal and provincial governments felt compelled to sit down with the hereditary chiefs to hammer out a new agreement, with construction suspended while they did so.
And then the virus and the lockdowns came, sucking up all of the media oxygen for months. But while everyone was looking elsewhere, BC and Ottawa were continuing to negotiate. And then, without an announcement, a Memorandum of Understanding was agreed to by both sides in March, the details of which are only now coming out. And, from what we've seen of it, it has the potential, as Gary Mason writes in The Globe and Mail, first, "to fundamentally alter politics in this country forever," and second, "to be viewed, ultimately, as a horribly one-sided sellout by British Columbia and Ottawa."
The memorandum recognizes the hereditary chiefs over and above the elected chiefs, who weren't involved in the negotiations. This detail is remarkable, because it involves a significant shift in the locus of Indigenous power and and heightens the internal tensions among the Wet’suwet’en. But the more dramatic aspect of the agreement is that it recognizes the Wet’suwet’en as having title over its territory. As the hereditary chiefs explained in pitching the agreement to their people, “You will be the first Indigenous Nation in Canada to have recognition of your Aboriginal title over your territory by agreement.”
What that means in practice is to be worked out in negotiations over the next several months, but one key aspect of it seems to be that, at least as Mason reads that section, "the hereditary chiefs will have exclusive domain over natural-resource development" on that 22,000 square kms (13,670 square miles) of land. To get such a significant concession in a negotiation, you'd imagine that the hereditary chiefs would have to give up quite a lot. Well, you would be wrong -- at least in their words, they conceded “Absolutely nothing.” Including, as Mason emphasizes, "any promise to not continue blocking the [Coastal GasLink] pipeline from crossing their territory." He continues,
There are so many potential land mines in this agreement, it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with how it gives power to hereditary chiefs over elected chiefs and their councils. In many cases, elected chiefs represent a new generation of Indigenous leadership. The hereditary chiefs who signed this agreement appear to be able to use their new power to stop the pipeline from crossing their land.... Hereditary chiefs elsewhere are undoubtedly going to see this agreement as precedent-setting. They will insist on the same powers. And that has the potential to undermine many other royalty-sharing agreements that elected band councils have signed with resource companies.
Getting here required good bit of of dirty pool from the hereditary chiefs. According to Chris Selley,
They have stripped pro-pipeline hereditary chiefs of their titles and installed anti-pipeline replacements. They did not keep promises — echoed by provincial and federal politicians — to at least run the memorandum of understanding by the rank and file. They wouldn’t even distribute draft copies.
And, of course, it has meant ignoring the wishes of ordinary members of the Wet’suwet’en nation. That being so, why are Victoria (capital of B.C., located just 75 miles across the water from Seattle) and Ottawa moving ahead with it? As Selley puts it,
[F]or the governments involved, this wasn’t about offering the Wet’suwet’en a better future. It was about putting out a fire: [Among other things, a] group of Mohawks thousands of kilometres away in eastern Ontario had blockaded CN’s main line in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs; and the Ontario Provincial Police, armed with an injunction demanding the blockade end, refused to lift a finger. Something had to give. Somebody had to get screwed, and it was the rank-and-file Wet’suwet’en. For no good reason whatsoever, the hereditary chiefs now hold all the keys to their future. It’s an appalling and appallingly predictable result.
We shall see what the outcome of all of this is. The details of the agreement are still being negotiated, and then it must be ratified by both sides. But it isn't looking good for the legitimately elected Wet’suwet’en leaders, nor their thousands of followers who are sick of the publicity and the games and just want to work. At this point the lesson of all of this, in Selley's words, is "make friends with the Ontario Mohawks. They pretty much run the country."