RCMP in British Columbia decided Thursday to abandon the presence in Wet’suwet’en territory that has sparked railway blockades, economic disruptions, and nearly 1,000 layoffs across the country, leaving Public Safety Minister Bill Blair “very hopeful” that negotiations with hereditary chiefs over the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline can now proceed.
“The condition that people said was the reason for the barricades has now been met,” Blair told media yesterday on Parliament Hill.
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“The announcement comes after hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en territory opposed to a natural gas pipeline asked that the RCMP move out of the area before they would meet with federal and provincial ministers,” the Globe and Mail adds.
Blair said the RCMP has been working very closely with the B.C. Solicitor General, but stressed the force made its “very sound” operational decision on its own.
“The RCMP, I think in a very appropriate pursuit of less confrontation and in the goal of peacekeeping, have agreed to continue to serve the area,” he said, “but by locating their people in a nearby town, which is entirely their decision, but I think the right one.”
In a letter to hereditary chiefs Wednesday, B.C. RCMP Commanding Officer Jennifer Strachan said the police had decided to reassess their presence in the area.
“Strachan indicated that if the commitment continues to keep the entire Morice West Service Road area open, then the need for the CISO (the RCMP’s Community Industry Safety Office) has diminished or decreased,” said spokesperson Sgt. Janelle Shoihet. “Therefore, she has also made herself available again to meet and discuss the future of the CISO and anything else.”
But while the latest news suggests a possible end to the blockades, they’ve shed light on underlying issues that have been accumulating for decades.
The Globe was one of several news outlets that pointed to divisions within the Wet’suwet’en community between those who support and oppose the pipeline. Columnists like the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason say the majority of the support for the blockades has come from non-Indigenous supporters and cite elected band council leaders within the territory who want to see the pipeline built.
“These are the people who constitute the new era of Indigenous leadership in B.C.,” Mason writes. “In this natural gas pipeline, they see a chance to lift their communities out of a poverty that has come to define their existence. They are saying it’s time to enter into good-faith agreements with non-Indigenous companies that hold the promise of good paying jobs for decades. These are small communities that are not sitting on real estate gold mines, such as the First Nations in Greater Vancouver. These are places that have far fewer wealth-creating options.”
Mason channels what he sees as federal and provincial governments’ concern “that the longer this dispute drags on, the greater the likelihood pressure will be exerted on these young Indigenous leaders from Elders who might now be having misgivings about supporting this project. The coalition of the willing that exists along the pipeline route could begin to fray, which would be a real shame.”
But the avalanche of news coverage around the pipeline, the RCMP action, and the ensuing blockades has also included explainers on the difference in purpose and mandate between elected band councils responsible for administration within reserve boundaries under the Indian Act, and hereditary chiefs whose mandates cover a wider territory that in British Columbia remains unceded. Yesterday, a former B.C. treaty negotiator called the province out for “picking their Indians” in the conflict, even though “provincial and federal governments acknowledged long ago that the hereditary chiefs are the appropriate people to negotiate with on matters of rights and title,” CBC reports.
“I spent seven years negotiating Wet’suwet’en rights and title on behalf of the provincial Crown and both the provincial and federal governments had agreed the Office of the Wet’suwet’en—that group representing the hereditary chiefs—had the authority to negotiate the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en people at the treaty table,” said Brian Domney, after sharing an open letter he’d written to Premier John Horgan last week.
“Now, because the chiefs with the sacred responsibility to steward their house territories for their people are not prepared to permit infringement of those rights and title, the corporation and government found their Indians in the elected band system,” he told CBC. But he added the conflict within the communities isn’t even slightly surprising.
“When you are a First Nation politician responsible for taking care of your people, trapped on a reserve in abject poverty under the Indian Act after generations of oppression, and underfunded for statutory obligations by the federal government, when a corporation waves money under your nose, it’s a big temptation,” he wrote in the open letter. “It is inevitable in Canada that these kinds of issues and conflicts are going to come up as we move ahead in trying to reconcile the relationship between First Nations people and the colonial system.”
Meanwhile, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs travelled east earlier this week to personally thank blockaders in Kahnawake, outside Montreal, and Tyendinaga, near Belleville, for their support. Via Rail announced nearly 1,000 layoffs, more than 29,000 people signed a Change.org petition supporting the hereditary chiefs, and a blockade in Edmonton was dismantled after protesters were served with a court injunction.
In the days leading up to the RCMP withdrawal from Wet’suwet’en territory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “urged Canadians to be patient and warned against the use of force” to remove the blockades, the Globe and Mail reported. “We know that people are facing shortages, they’re facing disruptions, they’re facing layoffs. That’s unacceptable. That’s why we’re going to continue working extremely hard with everyone involved to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.
Blair added at the time that he wasn’t inclined to set a deadline for the blockades to come down “because I find that’s not a very effective means of negotiation,” while Crown-Indigenous Services Minister Carolyn Bennett released a letter she and her B.C. counterpart had sent to the hereditary chiefs, asking for a meeting as early as Thursday.
“We understand that you have urgent issues to resolve and require dedicated attention from both levels of government to work with you in charting a peaceful path forward,” the letter said. “We are more than willing to find any mutually acceptable process with you and the Wet’suwet’en Nation to sit down and address the urgent and long-term issues at hand.”
Much of the coverage was sprinkled with comments from provincial premiers and business leaders sounding decidedly less inclined to be patient.
News reports also traced the dispute back to negotiations between British Columbia and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en leading up to an October 2014 environmental assessment certificate for Coastal GasLink—and beyond that, to the longer history of the relationship between the province and the communities.
“The root of the current clash can be found in reasons given for an environmental assessment certificate issued by B.C.’s ministers of environment and natural gas development,” CBC writes. “The province acknowledged concerns from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and other Indigenous groups—and gave the green light to the project anyway.”
The “very next entry in the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) approval record is a Wet’suwet’en ‘title and rights’ report’ that same year telegraphing the tensions that would block railroads and ports more than five years later,” the national broadcaster continues. “It concludes that the chiefs can’t rely on the province, the EAO, or the company behind the project—TransCanada—and its technology ‘to somehow protect our aboriginal title’.”
The Wet’suwet’en report also looks back on “a string of broken promises from the time ‘the first white settler fenced’ their lands to the establishment of B.C.’s biggest silver mine in Wet’suwet’en territory and onward,” CBC says. The report states: “The promises have continued, but the devastation of our lands and resources have continued without any long lasting protection and agreement with the Crown.”
The CBC story goes deep on the history leading up to more recent events in Wet’suwet’en territory and, now, across southern Canada.