How a coordinated effort from the NDP failed to establish trust with Wet’suwet’en First Nation
Last week, Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser headed to Smithers to meet with the five hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who oppose the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline.
Premier John Horgan, who said he could not find time for a face-to-face meeting with the chiefs during his recent tour of northern B.C., sent his minister in the hopes of smoothing over relations with the chiefs, who rejected his offer of a teleconference.
But the meeting didn’t happen. Minister Fraser was “not an appropriate party for a nation-to-nation discussion,” according to the chiefs, who reiterated their request for the premier to meet with them in person.
The chiefs have called Horgan’s decision not to visit during his northern tour disrespectful. The premier has countered that he can’t “drop everything … to come running when someone is saying they need to speak with [him].”
Sentiments on both sides appear to have soured since last year, when the province and the Wet’suwet’en chiefs committed to renewed reconciliation efforts
Internal government documents obtained by BC Today via freedom of information request illustrate a yearlong coordinated effort by the province to cultivate closer ties with the First Nations group — one that seems to have borne little fruit.
In February 2019 — one month after 14 people were arrested by the RCMP for blocking a forest service road on Wet’suwet’en territory in violation of a court order — the B.C. government and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs released a joint statement announcing “the start of a new reconciliation process” aimed at remedying “decades of denial of Wet’suwet’en rights and title.”
“Both parties believe that the time has come to engage in meaningful nation-to-nation discussions with the goal of B.C. affirming Wet’suwet’en rights and title” per last year’s statement.
A key piece of the government’s strategy in pursuing the renewed reconciliation effort was hiring lawyer Murray Rankin, at the time an NDP MP representing Victoria. Rankin was chosen for his “expertise in constitutional law, his knowledge of the Wet’suwet’en people and history, and relevant case law, and his experience as a negotiator,” the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said.
According to the FOI’d documents, Rankin agreed to do the work pro bono, with the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation covering travel and other costs.
His role was to “represent the Province in the discussions with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en” and “guide and design the reconciliation discussion process.” By the end of February 2019, Rankin announced he would not seek reelection in the year’s October federal vote.
A feast for new beginnings
On March 16, 2019, Rankin — along with the premier, Fraser and his deputy minister Doug Caul — attended a ceremonial feast (bahtlats) hosted by the Wet’suwet’en Laksilyu clan in Smithers.
The hereditary chiefs, Wet’suwet’en house and clan members, and staff from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en also attended.
The event signalled the “commencement of a reconciliation process to advance a nation-to-nation relationship based on trust, mutual respect and recognition of rights and title,” according to an internal communications document produced by the province’s Government Communications and Public Engagement (GCPE) team. It was also an opportunity to formally introduce Rankin as B.C.’s representative to lead the discussion going forward.
“This is a formal and highly symbolic event and an opportunity to clearly communicate the Province’s goals and expectations for the betterment of all Wet’suwet’en and all British Columbians,” reads the document.
The feast lasted six hours and reportedly featured many mentions of the Delgamuukw decision, which affirmed Indigenous rights and title to lands never ceded via treaty and established oral histories as acceptable evidence for asserting rights and title. The decision has been brought up regularly by those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Following the ceremony, optimism seemed to be running high on both sides. Speaking to the Terrace Standard, Horgan acknowledged the Delgamuukw case and his belief that the province and the Wet’suwet’en could find “a way forward.”
“What I heard around the room, from leaders from all of the clans, was this is a hopeful beginning for what will hopefully be a resolution of a longstanding grievance between the Wet’suwet’en people and the Crown as represented by federal and provincial governments,” he said.
Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’moks — who also goes by John Ridsdale and serves as spokesperson for the hereditary chiefs — hailed the event as “an olive branch” from the Wet’suwet’en to the province and a chance to educate elected officials about the First Nations’ authority.
“Having the premier in our feast hall … to make sure he fully understands where we’re coming from and where we need to go together is actually a good step in the right direction and we are not there to listen to them, they are there to listen to us,” he told the Standard. “We had to remind [the province] they only had presumed authority, we’ve never ever given up our authority as hereditary chiefs or as Wet’suwet’en.”
‘Not connected to any specific project’
The province made a concerted effort to keep its renewed reconciliation effort from being linked to the pipeline that the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs and their supporters oppose.
The GCPE produced a strategic communications document to outline how officials should respond to questions about the renewed process. If asked whether the reconciliation process means “the CGL pipeline will not go ahead,” the official response was to say the discussions with the Wet’suwet’en “are not connected to any specific project, nor is any specific project the focus of these discussions.”
The “reconciliation-focused discussions” were meant to “establish a deeper relationship between the province and Wet’suwet’en Nation, based on respect and recognition of rights” — but not the right the hereditary chiefs claim to be asserting over the traditional territory through which the CLG pipeline would run.
Potential talking points prepared for Horgan prior to the Wet’suwet’en feast contain repeated mentions of “commitment” and “respect” — as well as notes on how the premier’s remarks would likely be perceived.
“It should also be noted that words spoken at a formal feast like this carry great weight and commitment,” reads a postscript in the speaking points.
“For too long, governments have ignored court decisions and failed to affirm Wet’suwet’en rights and title,” one point in the document says. “We are committed to working together, to find a shared path forward.”
As tensions between the hereditary chiefs, their supporters and CGL flared once again this month, Horgan has pointed out that those opposing the pipeline do not have court decisions on their side — at least when it comes to the injunction given to CGL — and said he does not believe the chiefs have the authority to block the project.
“I don’t believe they do and, more importantly, the courts don’t either, and the courts have consistently sided with Indigenous peoples when their rights and their title have been abused by governments or by industry,” he said during a January 13 news conference. “In this instance, the courts have confirmed that this project can proceed and it will proceed.”
Horgan also told reporters his government’s relationship with the Wet’suwet’en had improved after a year of regular dialogue.
Chief Na’moks agreed.
“This time last year we had guns pointed at us,” he told CBC in reaction to Horgan’s comment. “Any relationship where you’re not looking down the barrel of a gun is a better relationship.”