The ‘Wil’ of the People: Is the heart of reconciliation still beating? Part two

(Graphic by Alex Dascalu/AQ)

This is part two of a two-part series focusing on the history of the Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada and contextualizing the Wet’suwet’en crisis. The first part appeared in the March 9 edition of The Aquinian. 

In British Columbia, the Wet’suwet’en people control roughly 54,000 square kilometers of unceded territory, governed by their hereditary chiefs. Coastal Gaslink is looking to build a gas pipeline mostly through this unceded territory. The pipeline will stretch from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, B.C. This pipeline will carry gas recovered through fracking.

Coastal Gaslink consulted numerous band councils in the region, who agreed to support the pipeline in agreements with the company. However, band councils do not govern the land of the Wet’suwet’en Peoples. They are governed by their hereditary chiefs.

Band councils, as mentioned earlier, are the form of government imposed upon Indigenous Peoples on reserves, by the Indian Act. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline entirely. Two hereditary chiefs originally expressed their support for the project, and they were promptly removed from office through the customary procedures of their peoples.

One can now see the problem that arises when Coastal Gaslink began building the pipeline, through Wet’suwet’en land. They didn’t consult the hereditary chiefs. It is important to note here the NDP-Green coalition government in British Columbia fully supports the construction of this pipeline.

The Wet’suwet’en people began to barricade and blockade the route that Coastal Gaslink was using to build the pipeline and adjoining infrastructure. They also served an eviction notice to the company to get off their land. The company then got an injunction in December 2019 to have the people and blockades removed to allow for the pipeline’s construction to continue, and after the RCMP deemed the Wet’suwet’en protesters “radical” in January 2019, the RCMP stormed the blockade and arrested 14 people. It was later reported the RCMP had been authorized to use lethal force against the protesters if necessary.

The conflict continued as national attention began to shift towards this situation. Within this time, Coastal Gaslink found stone artifacts while digging at a construction site where they were building a facility for their workers. In this situation, they are legally required to have an expert come survey the site to determine if there are objects of cultural significance there. But Coastal GasLink is obligated to conduct and pay for this observation. Coastal Gaslink. So, the company paid for experts to come out and survey the site. They said after there were no cultural artifacts at all. The company then alleged they had been planted by the Wet’suwet’en.

In February 2020, after independent legal observers had arrived in Wet’suwet’en territory, and the RCMP continued to press into Wet’suwet’en land, protests exploded across the nation. Almost all rail traffic was stalled for just over two weeks, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of goods at a standstill, the economy shook, and political and civil upheaval spread. All while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained touring the world trying to garner support for Canada in our attempt to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The national media had all its attention on the situation, while Liberal MPs and ministers stressed the importance of dialogue, with Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller and Minister od Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennet, meeting with Indigenous groups in Ontario and British Columbia, while Conservative MPs went on air with little or no understanding of the difference between a band council chief and a hereditary chief, let alone a comprehension of the Wet’suwet’en right to their land and sovereignty over it.

While the leader of the official opposition, Andrew Scheer talked and told protestors to “check their privilege” and said the rule of law must be upheld. Action was needed. The blockades needed to be removed and the RCMP needed to be directed by the government to remedy the situation.

I cannot help but chuckle at the rule of law needing to be upheld. While I concede that yes, the blockades across the country outside of Wet’suwet’en land are illegal, especially where not peaceful or safe, the blockades and defense on Wet’suwet’en land are entirely legal. The Wet’suwet’en people have the right to their land, and sovereignty over it, according to Canadian law, and Canadian Supreme Court precedent as set out by Delgamuuku v. B.C. (1997). This case, involving Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en peoples, set out the test for Indigenous sovereignty over unceded territory, after the British Columbian government attempted to argue they had no right to their lands at all the Wet’suwet’en meet the criterion set out by this test. They are well within their right, under Canadian law, to protect their land from what they see to be a foreign armed force attempting to remove them from their land.

The political implications of this are rather scary at certain points. While luckily, at the time of writing March 5, 2020, the course of nation to nation dialogue seems to be prevailing, unlike the crises that have come before of this ilk. It’s an important step in the course of reconciliation. This could have taken a drastically different turn as Trudeau back pedalled upon arrival in Canada as he too said the rule of law must be upheld, and the blockades must come down. If he didn’t say this, he was at risk of a non-confidence vote that would bring down his government. At the same time however, the disparity of opinion on this issue, and the immense ignorance displayed by the majority of Canadian society regardless of political stripe, poses the biggest threat to the possibility of reconciliation. This danger was on full view as this crisis has played out on national television and discussed at dinner tables and sadly in Facebook comment sections, where the Canadian body politic showed that we are nowhere near the aim of reconciliation as a whole, and can easily scrap the idea entirely.

With hope in some of our hearts, we still remain on the course of reconciliation, as if walking on a tightrope. So, the heart of reconciliation is still beating, but barely, on life support and in critical condition.