The Unis’tot’en are one of the clans of the Wet’suwet’en.

Their name means “People of the Headwaters” and they are the ones who set up the Unis’tot’en Camp.

The camp is located on a forest road near Houston, BC, 1200 km (740 miles) north of Vancouver.
(Source / Jaquie Bowes)

The Wet‘suwet’en pipeline standoff: jurisdiction and First-Nations governance in Canada

Kareem Gouda, Ben Ronald / January 23,  2019

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation was unknown by many until earlier this year. However, when RCMP showed up in the small town of Houston, B.C. the world began to take notice.

RCMP went to Wet’suwet’en territory to uphold a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to remove a barrier that was blocking a service road that would be used for construction of the Coastal GasLink  pipeline project. The pipeline would bring liquefied natural gas from near Dawson Creek to a refining facility in the coastal town of Kitimat.

As attention drew towards the conflict, videos surfaced of RCMP, in accordance with the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, arresting 14 people at a blockade located on an access road essential to construction of the pipeline. 

This video pushed the story into the international spotlight. Still,  much of the coverage was focused on the RCMP’s enforcement of the injunction, and the subsequent protests following the arrests. 

However, the story goes back to at least 2012 when TransCanada Corp. was approved for the natural gas pipeline. Later that year, the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en put up the blockade, which the RCMP would take down six years later. 

We spoke with people from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and reached out to local experts to give context to a conflict in need of unpacking. 

Indigenous groups typically negotiate deals on matters of development. But who decides which projects are green-lit? 

Terms of agreement

Whenever issues regarding First Nations are brought up there are terms that are important to the understanding of the story.

Here’s a glossary of some of those terms frequently used in the coverage of the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nations.

Wet‘suwet’en First Nation

Background

Wet’suwet’en, means ″People of the Wa Dzun Kwuh River or Bulkley River. The Wet’suwet’en are located in the Central Interior of BC.

They live on the Bulkley River and around Burns Lake, Broman Lake, and Francois Lake.

The Wet’suwet’en have a population of roughly 2500.

The Wet’suwet’en use a clan system:

A clan is a group of people belonging to a particular Tribe or House to identify families and territories. There are five Wet’suwet’en clans:

  • Gil_seyhu (Big Frog)
  • Laksilyu (Small Frog)
  • Gitdumden (Wolf/Bear)
  • Laksamshu (Fireweed)
  • Tsayu (Beaver Clan)

In the feast hall they operate as four Clans with Laksamshu and Tsayu clans working together.

Yintah

A word that comes from the Niwhts’ide’nï who are the ancestors of the Wet’suwet’en.

According to the Wet’suwet’en Yintah is an expression meaning “earth” or “land,” but more specifically “territory.”

It also generally refers to the land commonly now known as the Bulkley Valley.

Unis’tot’en Camp

The Unis’tot’en are one of the clans of the Wet’suwet’en.

Their name means “People of the Headwaters” and they are the ones who set up the Unis’tot’en Camp.

The camp is located on a forest road near Houston, BC, 1200 km (740 miles) north of Vancouver.

The Unis’tot’en camp is located on a forest road near Houston, BC

Heredity Chiefs

Hereditary chiefs, as the name implies, are those who inherit the title and responsibilities according to the history and cultural values of their community.

Their governing principles are anchored in their own cultural traditions. Hereditary chiefs carry the responsibility of ensuring the traditions, protocols,

songs, dances of the community, which have been passed down for hundreds of generations, are respected and kept alive.

Source: https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/hereditary-chief-definition-and-5-faqs

Elected Band Council

Elected Band Councils function much like a municipal council. Councils govern the administration of services on the reserve. 

Unceded Territory

Unceded Territory means that the Aboriginal Title / Claim has neither been surrendered nor acquired by the Crown.

In the case of the Wet’suwet’en the unceded territory that hereditary chiefs

claim dominion over represents roughly 22,000 square kilometres.

Indian Act

The Indian Act is the principal statute through which the federal government administers Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land and communal monies.

It was first introduced in 1876 as a consolidation of previous colonial ordinances that aimed to eradicate First Nations culture in favor of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. The Act has been amended several times, most significantly in 1951 and 1985, with changes mainly focusing on the removal of particularly discriminatory sections such as women be able to hold office.

Source: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-act

UNDRIP

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It also “emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations”

Source: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf

Who are Hereditary Chiefs?

Hereditary chiefs, as the name implies, are those who inherit the title and responsibilities according to the history and cultural values of their community.

Their governing principles are anchored in their own cultural traditions. Hereditary chiefs carry the responsibility of ensuring the traditions, protocols, songs, and dances of the community, which have been passed down for hundreds of generations, are respected and kept alive.

They are caretakers of the people and the culture. Additionally, as the name suggests, the journey to becoming a chief begins before birth in many cases. It should be noted that Hereditary chiefs’ domain is over the unceded territories that they historically occupied.

Prior to colonization, many Indigenous nations, such as the HaidaNisga’aNuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw had hereditary chiefs. These chiefs formed the basis for their traditional form of governance.

While researching this story, we spoke with Tange Joeseph, who is a member of the Wet’suwet’en first nation. She believes it isn’t clear to Canadians in general that hereditary chiefs are separate and have separate jurisdictions from elected officials.

“That’s what they’re getting mixed up – the band office has no jurisdiction over the unceded territories”

What are elected band councils?

“You have to go back to when these things were first created to understand what they were” – Wawmeesh Hamltion

Wawmeesh Hamilton Reconciliation journalist at The Discourse

Elected Band Councils are made up of elected members of a particular band or clan. They are a product of the Indian Act of 1876 and run contrary to the traditional governance structures that had been in place for, in some cases, over a thousand years.

They function much like a municipal council. Councils govern the administration of affairs such as education, housing, utilities and other community services on reserves. Members of the councils are typically elected to two-year terms.

These bands don’t necessarily represent an entire First Nations group. Rather, they represent the members of a particular reserve. In the case of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, each clan has its own band council elected by the members of that clan. 

“Members from individual Wet’suwet’en nations couldn’t vote in neighbouring Wet’suwet’en First Nations council elections” – Wawmeesh Hamilton

So while one band council might approve a pipeline or other infrastructure project on its reserve, this doesn’t account for other reserves, and certainly doesn’t account for the land between reserves.

Source: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chief#HereditaryandElectedChiefs

Read more about the pipeline protests below:

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE PIPELINE PROTESTS IN B.C

Blockades erected by the Wet’suwet’en clans have been in place since 2012. (Unist’ot’en Camp / Facebook)

From Behind the Barrier

Camp Unist’ot’en, near Houston, B.C was the scene of the standoff between First Nations supporters and the RCMP.

TransCanada Corp. received an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court to remove anyone who interfered with the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline worksite. This injunction was enforced by RCMP officers. The RCMP has since reached an agreement with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and CoastalGas Link.

“We would like to once again emphasize that the RCMP’s focus remains on creating an environment conducive to getting all parties to come to the table and continue to participate in these fruitful discussions. We will do everything possible to facilitate and support those meetings moving forward, while maintaining peace and keeping everyone safety”

-Cpl. Madonna Saunderson, District Advisory NCO (Media Relations), North District

Jacquie Bowes, of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en was there while RCMP arrived to enforce the supreme court injunction.

Bowes shared her experience and told us what went through her mind as the situation unfolded:

“My heart was hurting. This vision will sit in my mind til the day I get put in the ground. I will be telling my kids and grandchildren about the invasion of January 7, 2019.  Where deception fell upon our people. Not only with the pipeline but with the division and hatred that came abroad. Jan 8, 2019 was a day of mourning and sadness, my body was full of emotions. It was a fight within myself about the feelings I was battling of my own because of the incident that happened the prior night. Thinking of the people I created relationships with at the Gitdumden checkpoint, telling stories around the fire, then to see them screaming and crying.”

Jacquie BowesWet‘suwet’en First Nation

As the RCMP arrived at the checkpoint, 14 people were ultimately arrested.

Under Canadian law, there is no treaty that guarantees that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have domain over the 22,000 square kilometers of unceded land In BC’s central interior.

To see more on the arrests, you can find the full story below:

UPDATE: 14 PROTESTERS ARRESTED IN NORTHERN BC DURING ANTI-PIPELINE DEMONSTRATION

Following the arrests, hundreds of protesters gathered outside of BC Supreme Court in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nation (Darrian Matassa-Fung / BCIT News)

“[Elected band councils’] creation had nothing to do with democracy. They were created when the Indian Act was first imposed. As a way of, undermining, if you will, the traditional social-cultural order that had existed for a millenium before colonization.”

Wawmeesh HamiltonReconciliation Journalist, The Discourse

Media Coverage

The dramatic encounter between RCMP and protesters became the focal point of a complex story. 

TransCanada Corp, the parent company of Coastal GasLink, reported, and has said repeatedly, that it has signed development agreements of support with the Wet’suwet’en’s elected band councils.

As the public learned more about elected band councils, it was understood that they were democratically elected by members of the individual nations. This fact gave the appearance of unity in the decision to move forward with the pipeline project. 

The difficulty of condensing a complex story so it’s understandable to the broader public can be a challenge.

What’s more, covering a story taking place 600 kilometers north of Vancouver can make it difficult to capture and accurately convey the nuances that led to this conflict.

“There’s news about these First Nations (…) but no straightforward reporting, no nuanced reporting about the meetings, for instance, that took place about this issue.”

Wawmeesh HamiltonJournalist, The Discourse

“There’s a lot of media that are saying things that’s not true, and they haven’t even come out there to even talk to anybody—and that’s what really gets me upset.”

Alexander JosephMember of Wet‘suwet’en First Nation

Who has the final say?

The institution of Elected Band Council administrations is legally recognized, its structure having been in place since the Indian Act of 1876.

Hereditary chiefs were not recognized under the Indian Act, but more recent legal decisions have indeed affirmed traditional indigenous customs as having legal standing.

As with any project involving disparate decision makers, it’s not always obvious who has the final say. In the case of the Wet’suwet’en nation’s approval and decision making process around the Coastal GasLink pipeline, this certainly rings true.