Coastal GasLink-Wet’suwet’en conflict is not that simple

The larger, more conflict issue of land claims needs to be settled

There is nothing simple about the conflict between Coastal GasLink (CGL) and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. And yet, supporters on both sides would have us believe it is simple and that it has already been settled by the courts.

On the one hand many pipeline supporters point to the B.C. Supreme Court injunction, which the RCMP moved in to enforce on the Morice West Service Road last week.

The foundation of that decision is that CGL did their due diligence and obtained the free, prior and informed consent (FPIP) of all the affected First Nations along the 670-kilometre pipeline route. That is required under Canadian law, and from court rulings including the 2014 Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) Tsilhqot’in decision.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs dispute the authority of the elected band councils (a legacy of colonial rule) saying they are the rightful title holders of their territories and their FPIP was not obtained.

Many supporters of the Wet’suwet’en, on the other hand, point to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Delgamuukw v B.C. which, they say, granted the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en rights and title over 58,000 square kilometres in northwestern B.C.

In fact, what the Delgamuukw ruling did was order a new trial because of deficiencies in the lower court’s treatment of evidence, and established that oral histories were a legitimate form of evidence. No new trial has ever taken place.

And while other First Nations have settled claims via the courts (Tsilhqot’in), treaty (Nisga’a) or other forms of agreements (Tahltan), the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan have not.

It is an exceptionally complex issue and treating it otherwise is not helping anyone.

The province and federal government made it clear last week this pipeline is going through, by force if necessary. The chiefs made it clear they are not backing down.

Northwestern B.C. has a resource-based economy, always has and will for the foreseeable future, both for Indigenous and non-indigenous people.

The current project notwithstanding, what really needs to be settled is the larger, more complex land claims issue.

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