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Vaughn Palmer: Wet'suwet'en agreement could see pipeline disagreements down the road

Vancouver Sun logo Vancouver Sun 2020-05-15 Vaughn Palmer
John Horgan wearing a suit and tie: B.C. Premier John Horgan insisted his government’s decision to sign the Wet'suwet'en agreement was not an indication of disrespect for the elected chiefs. “Those who are elected have their point of view. It's a legitimate point of view. I'm not disputing that at all.” © DARRYL DYCK B.C. Premier John Horgan insisted his government’s decision to sign the Wet'suwet'en agreement was not an indication of disrespect for the elected chiefs. “Those who are elected have their point of view. It's a legitimate point of view. I'm not disputing that at all.”

VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan brushed off the suggestion this week that his government was picking sides by signing an agreement with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs over the objections from elected ones.

“I don’t think it’s picking sides,” said Horgan on the day before the signing ceremony. “I think it’s addressing the issues we had on the table 2½ months ago with the hereditary leaders.”

He was referring to the showdown earlier this year with hereditary Wet’suwet’en leaders opposed to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their traditional territory.

In an effort to defuse the conflict, the federal and provincial governments entered into talks with the hereditary leadership, resulting in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Wet’suwet’en rights and title.

But on the eve of this week’s signing ceremony, four elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs denounced the MOU as invalid because they were cut out of the negotiating process and kept in the dark about the contents until the last minute.

They faulted the hereditary leadership for failing to fully consult the various Wet’suwet’en clans, as they had promised to do after the MOU was initialed on Feb. 29.

The four called on the governments to cancel the signing ceremony, withdraw the MOU, and start again this time with elected councils as full participants in the negotiations.

Instead the signing went ahead as planned Thursday. Federal and provincial representatives signed along with nine hereditary chiefs, several of them who were prominent in the protests over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which the elected leadership has supported.

Horgan insisted that his government’s decision to sign was not an indication of disrespect for the elected chiefs.

“I absolutely respect the role and function of the elected leaders within the Wet’suwet’en territory,” he told reporters. “Those that are elected have their point of view. It’s a legitimate point of view. I’m not disputing that at all.”

Horgan conceded the hereditary leaders had fallen short in securing consensus among the Wet’suwet’en people: “I was hopeful that the clan gatherings to discuss the MOU would have been the opportunity for that. Clearly it hasn’t been perfect.”

The premier hopes the imperfections can be rectified going forward.

“We need to have a resolution to the governance challenges in Wet’suwet’en territory,” he said. “I believe the framework that’s inside the MOU will allow that governance debate to take place internally, and the Wet’suwet’en will, as they rightly should, decide how they proceed from here.” 

“No, I don’t think we’re setting a precedent, other than the precedent of sitting down and working with leadership within a community that has clearly divided leadership on the hereditary side,” he replied.

“But I think the Wet’suwet’en people have to figure it out. Elected, non-elected, and just regular folks, and I believe the MOU will allow for that.”

The decision to go ahead with the signing before the governance issue was sorted out drew an expression of concern from Indigenous law expert Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Turpel-Lafond, a professor at the University of B.C. school of law, had originally greeted the MOU as a good step forward. But now that the actual text has been made public, she was more critical.

“I understand it was produced in this cauldron of pressure with the Coastal GasLink protests,” she told The Canadian Press this week. “But what was touted as being this massive shift and fantastic agreement, now that we all see it, it’s like, ‘What?’ It’s possibly going to saddle people with more conflict and deeper conflict,” she said, in suggesting the signing ceremony be postponed. 

She also said that in granting governing rights to the hereditary chiefs, the MOU would appear to contradict B.C.’s adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

That was a telling criticism because Turpel-Lafond was a key adviser on drafting the enabling legislation for B.C.’s embrace of the UN declaration.

While Horgan makes light of his decision to exclude elected chiefs, the hereditary leaders are in no doubt about the meaning of the NDP government’s signature on the MOU.

“What did the Wet’suwet’en give for this Agreement?” they asked in a posting this week on the office of the Wet’suwet’en website. Answer: “Absolutely nothing.”

In particular, the hereditary chiefs gave no ground in their opposition to the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline, as the posting went on to explain.

“Officially the agreement has no impact on CGL,” they noted, repeating what the federal and provincial governments have also been saying.

But in the hereditary chiefs’ reading of the situation post-MOU: “The other two governments know that they will need to address the impact of CGL on the Wet’suwet’en territory. The (provincial) government is on notice of the severe impact of CGL on the southern Wet’suwet’en territory.”

Moreover: “Nothing in this agreement restricts the court actions and protests relating to CGL from proceeding.”

So as the hereditary chiefs see it, they gave up nothing, gained important recognition of their leadership, and retain a free hand to fight the pipeline as they see fit.

Still, Horgan insisted this week that the pipeline project is on track. But he might want to advise his preferred negotiating partners, the hereditary chiefs, because they seem to have reached a different conclusion.

Vpalmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer

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