“We have a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of catching up to do,” said Chief Gisday’wa. “A hundred and fifty years of it.”
At a virtual Zoom meeting held on May 14, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs met with the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of British Columbia to sign a three way Memorandum of Understanding.
The agreement immediately recognizes that Wet’suwet’en rights and title are held by the nation’s own system of governance, and include a commitment to beginning negotiations on legal recognition of Wet’suwet’en title to their traditional land.
Chief Gisday’wa was one of the plaintiffs in the landmark 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, which led to a Supreme Court decision that recognized Wet’suwet’en system of laws that predates colonialism.
The deal was struck in February, amidst nation-wide protests in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nation against the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, planned to run through 190 km of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
The slogans ShutDownCanada and All Eyes on Wet’suwet’en swept the nation in January and February, with protestors showing support from all around the Wet’suwet’en as rail blockades halted access from Montreal to Toronto in solidarity.
The 670 km long natural gas pipeline is planned to carry gas from a town in eastern BC to a liquefaction plant on the west coast of the province, where the gas will be exported to Asian customers. It is known as the largest private sector investment in Canadian history.
While five of six elected band council members agreed with the project, the hereditary chiefs, whose role within the nation is to make decisions over the land, say they never consented. The dispute made global headlines, with UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for immediate withdrawal as RCMP raided the Unist’ot’en camp with guns in tow.
The Wet’suwet’en are just one of many First Nations in the province that have been attempting to negotiate jurisdiction, recognition of ownership, and self-government since Europeans began to settle on their traditional land in the 1800s.
“This is not just an indigenous issue, this is a human rights issue, the rights for us to be who we are as Wet’suwet’en People,” Cheif Na’Moks said at the virtual signing.
The Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty or relinquished their rights to the 22,000km of land they have been inhabiting since pre-colonial times.
“There’s no turning back,” said Marlene Hale, a chef from Wet’suwet’en who led protests in Montreal. She says the MOU represents a step towards reconciliation.
“It’s a signal to the government that we may have agreed to start this work by starting the talks and negotiations,” she continued. “They will walk the path of reconciliation with us. That’s very important. The rights and titles will be recognized.”
In 1984, leaders of the Gitxcan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations took the BC provincial government to court to establish jurisdiction over 58 000 km of both land and water. The fight for recognition of ownership of the land had climbed to urgency when a hydroelectric project established by the BC government in the 50s caused major damage to the area of multiple First Nations groups, including the destruction of homes and of sacred burial ground.
As clear-cut logging projects were approved by the BC government, members of the Gixdan and Wet’suwet’en nations opposed the building of a second hydro project, the First Nations appealed the decision and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. During the trial, The First Nations group provided evidence to their historical ownership of the land by using oral history; witnesses spoke in their own languages, using translators to tell the long history of the land and water in the territory.
Ceremonial songs and performances, reciting the adaawk, personal bloodline histories of the Gitxsan, and kungas, songs about trials between territories of the Wet’suwet’en.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled oral history to be evidence of pre-colonial land ownership, and ruled that the right to the Nations’ land had not been extinguished.
The Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case made headlines as the most comprehensive decision about Aboriginal title, which legally states that “the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed”. While the case affirmed that the Wet’suwet’en may still have ownership of their land, any further decisions were not made.
The MOU, Hale said, “leads to a consensus on the government to implement the 1997 Supreme Court Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa [case] – it was really putting it official.”
The fight was still far from over. Land rights have yet to be clearly defined and articulated in court, even though it had been acknowledged that the Wet’suwet’en never signed over their land in a treaty.
In 2010, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and land defenders built the Unisto’ten Camp as a means to block the development of numerous proposed pipeline projects that would cut through the First Nation’s territory. Hereditary chiefs held their opposition to Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, a pipeline project whose’ path was similar to the future CGL.
A permaculture garden and a traditional pithouse were built on site, bringing life to the conflict, used for shelter are included in the camp which lays at the exact point pipelines would cross into Unis’to’ten Wet’suwet’en territory.
Though the ENGP project never went through, the CGL pipeline was officially approved in 2015, with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs remaining in opposition.
In 2014, Tsilhqot’in Nation in B.C. became the first to prove title to their land in court.
In another landmark Supreme Court ruling, provinces cannot unilaterally claim a right to engage in clear-cut logging on lands protected by Indigenous Peoples; they have to engage in meaningful consultation with the Aboriginal title-holder before proceeding.
“This is the first time I think that any of the governments have taken any real steps forwards towards trying to find reconciliation towards Indigenous Peoples,” said Chief Smogelgem during the MOU signing.
“This is a significant time for our nation,” he continued. “It’s a significant time for everybody, all around the world. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of the work that we’re about to do today which is working actually towards true reconciliation. It is no longer a political catch phrase – this is something that is going into action.”
The 1876 Indian Act, which charted an assimilationist policy towards the Aboriginal peoples in Canada, made it illegal for Indigenous Peoples to raise money or hire lawyers for land claims. This was not lifted until 1951.
The Wet’suwet’en uses a “mixed governance system” that uses both hereditary and elected chiefs, who all play different roles within the community. The elected band council is a position that stemmed from the Indian Act to bridge Canadian government with First Nations. It is different from the traditional position of the hereditary chief, where hereditary chiefs attain governing power by consensus.
It is their job to protect the land and assure its safety for future generations, a continuation of the work of their ancestors that will be passed down to future generations.
“We always knew that we had 22 000 square kilometers of land,” said Chief Na’Moks at the virtual signing.
For Marlene Hale, May 14 is a new day to mark on the calendar – a celebration. “Wiggus – respect – rides high with our people,” she said. “And it was not respected, that word. It is now, it is existing and it is respected. By them signing, this wiggus has come to light again.”
“We’re here to make a future, because this is who we are. We’ve always held our integrity, we’ve always held our honesty, we’ve always held our respect. From this day forward, it has to be reciprocal. When we speak, we must be listened to. When we come to an agreement, it’s an agreement from the heart, the soul and for the future, and we have to do it for everybody.”
“When our children and grandchildren and great grand children look upon this day, I want them to look back on this for a smile on their face,” he continued. “Those ladies and gentlemen did it for us, and now we’re doing it for them. And it has to be done with honesty and hard work. Today the work starts, the real hard work starts. And there will never be another piece of legislation of policy that will ever silence the Wet’suwet’en again.”
It’s important to note that while the Memorandum of Understanding is an important step forward for aboriginal rights, it does not affect the Coastal GasLink Pipeline which is currently being built.
Featured image by James Hyett via WikiMedia Commons