Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs call for minister’s resignation

Elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs are asking for the immediate resignation of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett over an agreement between Ottawa, B.C. and hereditary chiefs, which they claim was drafted without their consent. 

In a joint statement released on Monday, four elected chiefs call on the B.C. and federal governments to reject the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on rights and title with hereditary chiefs and restart the negotiation process to include the elected leadership.

The draft MOU lays out the steps to transfer jurisdiction of Wet’suwet’en territory to traditional governance, including land, water and revenue-sharing. The agreement would give hereditary chiefs significant leverage over future resource development according to a copy of the document obtained by CBC News. 

The statement follows meetings last week between elected chiefs and hereditary leadership, and separately with provincial and federal ministers.

Elected leaders eye legal options

The release was signed by Chief Rosemarie Skin of Skin Tyee Nation, Chief Dan George of Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nation, Chief Maureen Luggi of Wet’suwet’en First Nation and Chief Patricia Prince of Nee Thai Buhn Indian Band.

Chief Dan George of Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation is one of four elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs asking the B.C. and federal governments to reject their agreement with hereditary chiefs and restart negotiations to include elected leadership. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

Luggi told CBC News the elected chiefs want Bennett to resign — and not B.C.’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser — because Bennett has a special constitutional relationship with First Nations as the minister who represents the Crown.

“In this instance, we are witnessing a failure of the Crown and we believe they are wanting to pursue negotiations and leaving a certain group of people out,” Luggi said.

“When you look at Aboriginal rights and title, they are collective rights and all members and all of our interests must be respected at every stage.”

Luggi said the elected chiefs are considering legal action.

“How do they expect to receive or achieve ratification if this is how things are starting out right now?” Luggi said.

‘Something is terribly amiss’

The elected chiefs held a six-hour virtual meeting with hereditary chiefs last Thursday, where they were given a copy of the draft MOU for the first time, according to the statement.

“The meeting was at the request of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, but they treated us improperly and failed to adequately inform us regarding the proceedings and processes that have taken place to date,” the statement said. 

“They are not following the responsibility of the hereditary chiefs … To ignore their clan members and elected councils, something is terribly amiss.”

The majority of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in B.C. still oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project running through their traditional, unceded territory. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The elected chiefs also aired their concerns to Bennett and Fraser last Tuesday over the phone.

“We reiterated to the ministers once again that the process they have conducted to date is completely unacceptable and disrespectful to our people,” the chiefs wrote.

“We agree with the pursuit of negotiations for Wet’suwet’en rights and title, but we take issue with the improper consultation.”

CBC News has reached out to the hereditary chiefs and to the offices of Bennett and Fraser for comment. They have not yet provided a response.

MOU signing still expected to go ahead

The elected chiefs say the hereditary chiefs do not represent them and don’t have the legal authority to sign any documents on behalf of their clans or their members.

The elected chiefs say they are the legal authority in their territories and are actively involved in all issues, including the negotiation of MOUs.

Speaking to reporters after in-person meetings in Smithers, B.C., in early March, from left: federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relation Carolyn Bennett; Wet’suwet’en hereditary leader Chief Woos, also known as Frank Alec; and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The document is set to be released publicly after a planned virtual signing event involving the hereditary chiefs, Fraser and Bennett, which is scheduled for May 14.

The MOU sets out a three-month time frame to negotiate legal recognition of the Wet’suwet’en Houses as the governing body. The document also sets out a months-long period to negotiate the transfer of jurisdiction over their 22,000 square kilometre territory in northern B.C.

The document said the Wet’suwet’en need to clarify their governance structure, systems and laws through a ratification process including all Wet’suwet’en. But governance issues would be addressed only after the MOU is signed — elected leaders want this dealt with before any signing.

The MOU was crafted in the wake of a long-running dispute between hereditary and elected leaders over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which triggered weeks of solitary protests and railway blockades that paralyzed parts of Canada’s economy over the winter.

While the MOU doesn’t resolve the dispute over the natural gas pipeline, which crosses unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, it aims to clarify a key issue: who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people going forward.

Most hereditary chiefs still oppose the project, which would link to an LNG terminal in Kitimat, B.C., in the traditional territory of the Haisla.

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