It will be interesting to see the details of the tentative agreement that Ottawa and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have reached.
News of the agreement was released by Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and British Columbia Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser but both said they could not release details until the chiefs have consulted with their people.
The opposition of a handful chiefs to the CoastalGasLink pipeline terminating in Kitimat, BC prompted sympathy protests across the country and led to the shutdown on large portions of the Canadian National’s rail lines.
The disruption to the rail traffic has cost the country billions of dollars in economic activity and inconvenienced tens of thousands of travelers.
So there is obviously a great deal at stake in resolving the dispute.
It’s hard to see, though, what any agreement brokered by the handful of hereditary chiefs will actually accomplish.
After all, Chief Woos, one of the hereditary chiefs opposed, says the chiefs who are opposed remain opposed.
The pipeline already has the support of all the Wet’suwet’en elected leaders and 85 per cent of the Wet’suwet’en people.
So it’s difficult to see what the agreement could possibly entail.
Of course, there is another aspect to this impasse – who actually speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people?
The hereditary chiefs maintain that they have the right to negotiate with governments and corporations.
Further clouding the issue is the fact that the land is not covered by a treaty, remains unceded and there is a 1997 court case that recognized the hereditary chiefs’ authority and the exclusive right of the Wet’suwet’en peoples to the land but did not specify the boundaries.
Indigenous supporters of the pipeline, such as Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, however, maintain that the court case establishes that no single one group holds title to the land and that its control rests in the community as a whole.
In other words, the final resolution of this dispute may well come down to how a majority of the Wet’suwet’en people will make their views known and how they will assert their inherent rights.
It is hard to see how the two senior levels of government can accede to demands to disenfranchise the Wet’suwet’en people simply to satisfy some archaic belief in hereditary rule.
That is particularly true since the Wet’suwet’en people themselves stand to benefit so handsomely from the pipeline’s construction.