Even as hereditary chiefs from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW) were signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with B.C. and Canada this morning, another group of Wet’suwet’en were out front of the office in Smithers demonstrating against the agreement.
“The way the business is being done is not the Wet’suwet’en way of doing business with the signing of the MOU,” said Gary Naziel, a Laksilyu (small frog) Clan hereditary chief. “There’s no consultation between the members and the clans and the other nations. This office hasn’t consulted with anybody and they’re going ahead and signing the MOU. They’re putting the cart before the horse.”
Naziel said the proper way to go about it is through the feast system, which has always been at the core of traditional governance. He said it has become dysfunctional and has been taken over by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en which, he said, is not a governing body, but a non-profit society.
“We need to fix our feast system before we move on to title and rights. You can’t have a nation without the people and these are the people here.”
The demonstrators wanted the MOU put on hold, and for federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennet and provincial Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser to step down.
“They’re the ones assisting in this, they’re doing what’s been done for the past 150 years; they’re still conquering us and dividing us,” Naziel said. “We were so close to getting our nation united and now this is just going to divide us more.”
Helen Tait-Day, also of the Laksilyu Clan, said she met with Bennett on March 10 in Ottawa. She also believes the governance issue must be settled first.
“We asked [Bennett] not to sign the MOU until we had a strategy in place to talk about how we’re going to govern ourselves as a nation. We cannot be dictated to by a group of five men who rule the entire nation without the band council involvement.”
Skin Tyee hereditary chief Helen Michelle (Ludooks), questioned the legitimacy of the OW itself.
“Our concern is that the Skin Tyee Nation has the biggest traditional territory from the beautiful shores of Ootsa Lake and the Tahtsa region up into the Huckleberry mine,” she said.
“[The OW] are squatting and stampeding on our traditional territory, They handpicked our chiefs, and no consultation with myself and my hereditary chiefs. We have huge territory and we have every right to be heard.”
She said they have effectively been muzzled both by lack of transparency of the OW and by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“We all come from a small community; we live miles apart and we’re all self-isolating and abiding by the health professionals, and all this is being done behind our backs while we’re self-isolating. They’re dealing with our traditional territory and we need to have a voice.”
She said they had a call with Bennett and Fraser last week to express their concerns.
“There are thousands of us that say ‘no’ and we mean no, we’re not going to step aside,” she said.
Ostensibly, the MOU is a separate issue from the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline project, but Shirley Wilson, a member of the Gilseyhu (Big Frog) Clan and CGL employee, who has been an outspoken Wet’suwet’en supporter of industry, said they go hand in hand. She said it’s about balancing their traditional lifestyle with the opportunities associated with industry.
Wilson also questions the legitimacy of some of the OW chiefs, particularly referencing Warner Naziel, who took over the title Smogelgem under the Sun House of the Laksamshu clan after it was stripped from Gloria George.
George had the name taken away after forming the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition (WMC) with Tait-Day and Darlene Glaim to support the pipeline in 2015. Both Tait-Day and Glaim also lost hereditary titles.
Glaim formerly served as Woos of the Cassyex House, Gidimt’en (Wolf and Bear) Clan. Tait-Day was previously Wi’hali’yte, under Kwen Beeg Yex (House Beside The Fire) of the Laksilyu clan.
Frank Alec is now Woos and along with Warner Naziel, are two of the chiefs involved in the MOU negotiations.
“It’s not right,” Wilson said. “It’s just like taking that matriarch’s name … and vanishing and demolishing her whole history.”
The OW maintains the women were justifiably stripped of their titles.
Several elected councils have issued releases opposing the MOU including Skin Tyee.
Hagwilget, a Wet’suwet’en community near Hazelton, believes it is particularly well-placed to oppose the deal because it was the only Wet’suwet’en band that did not sign an impact benefit agreement with Coastal GasLink in recognition that the hereditary chiefs were the lawful authority on traditional lands.
“HFNG (Hagwilget First Nation Government) rejects the consultation process undertaken by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en as unlawful and oppressive conduct and in violation of article 10 of the UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) that provides for ‘free, prior and informed consent,’ when seeking to infringe on Aboriginal Rights and title,” stated a release dated May 4.
It accused B.C., Canada and the OW of using the COVID-19 pandemic to operate under the radar and oppress consultation and said the band would “use all available legal remedies and actions… in protection of Hagwilget membership’s inalienable Aboriginal Rights and Title.”
Following the signing of the MOU this morning (May 14), which was conducted remotely by electronic means, the elected chiefs of four of the other Wet’suwet’en bands issued a statement condemning the process.
“The contempt that Canada, BC and the Office of Wet’suwet’en continue to show to the democratically elected representatives of the Wet’suwet’en people is bottomless,” it said, again calling for Bennett to resign.
To the OW, it said: “We lack any confidence whatever in your intention to fairly represent the interests of all Wet’suwet’en people. We request that you suspend negotiation of your backroom treaty and work together with the members and Elected Chiefs and Councils to develop a proper process and mandate so that negotiations can proceed in good faith.”
Following the signing Fraser said the disputes between the Wet’suwet’en leadership is an internal issue.
“I’ve heard some of those concerns,” he said. “Following that I’ve worked with Minister Bennett. We’ve called all the elected chiefs and heard their concerns again. They were pretty much all around the process that they said was not appropriate, not sufficient.”