Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, left, and provincial Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation hammered out a memorandum of understanding on rights and title with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en during talks in Smithers at the end of February. (Quinn Bender photo)

Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs call for withdrawal of ‘premature’ agreement on rights and title

The elected chiefs claim negotiation process ignored them and many clan members

Elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en are calling for a retraction of a joint statement by nine hereditary chiefs, B.C. officials and the federal government regarding the signing of a memorandum on rights and title.

The joint statement, released last week, noted the groups reached an agreement on Feb. 29 in regard to the contents of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which remain confidential. The MOU was created through a days-long discussion in Smithers earlier this year.

Following those meetings, which involved Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Scott Fraser, provincial minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, the hereditary chiefs announced they would take the memorandum to the clans in a series of community meetings for ratification by the Wet’suwet’en people.

Maureen Luggi, elected chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, (reserve west of Burns Lake), said the hereditary chiefs did visit their community and presented the agreement March 11.

“We communicated to them that we were not satisfied with [the MOU] and that we had concerns about reconciling our relationship between our community and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW) because there has always been a disconnect between us,” she said. “They received funding on behalf of all Wet’suwet’en, but they don’t engage with us, they don’t visit our communities, they don’t include us, it’s like they’re an entity unto themselves.

She said she was very surprised to see the April 30 joint statement saying the clans had completed their review of the MOU and the OW had invited Ministers Bennett and Fraser to sign it on May 14.

In their own joint statement signed by the elected chiefs of all five Wet’suwet’en reserves released on May 1, the elected chiefs say they don’t support the agreement.

“This MOU consultation process has lacked any semblance of credibility,” the statement reads.

“The federal government, the provincial government and the hereditary chiefs have completely ignored many clan members and elected chiefs. These discussions have not included openness and respect for all parties.”

The elected chiefs called the announcement of the MOU signing “premature” and have demanded it be withdrawn until after COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings have been lifted.

On Saturday (May 2), the OW released an open letter addressed to the elected chiefs inviting them to participate in a virtual meeting sometime this week.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en agree to sign memorandum on rights and title with B.C., Ottawa

“We would like to continue building on the good work that took place in February 2020 with the community-based dialogue sessions that occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic and public health crisis,” the letter states, referencing clan meetings across the territory, sessions in Prince George and Vancouver and more recent virtual meetings.

Details of the memorandum have not been released, but the OW, federal and provincial governments agree it commits them to implement the rights and title of the First Nation.

The statement notes the signing of the MOU would come just after the 33rd anniversary of the beginning of the original Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case in B.C. Supreme Court, which started on May 11, 1987.

In that case, the chief justice at the time ruled against the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan. A later Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1997 affirmed rights and title, but did not establish details such as the boundaries of the land claims, causing a series of conflicts and ambiguities in recent years – specifically with respect to pipeline projects in the area.

READ MORE: Story of Wet’suwet’en Chief Alfred Joseph Alfred (Gisday’wa) being told

The memorandum is aimed at addressing broader land claim issues, but there is more at stake. Luggi said internal governance itself needs to be addressed.

“We feel the need to stand up for our children and our grandchildren because we need to have a say in who will negotiate Aboriginal rights for our Wet’suwet’en people and we will not be dictated to,” she said.

She also thinks the general population should be concerned about the lack of openness and transparency being shown by the Canadian and B.C. governments in the process.

It also appears not all Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are on board with the memorandum. In a press release May 4 from the Skin Tyee Nation (reserve in the Francois Lake area), hereditary Chiefs Ludooks (Helen Michelle), Lthe’ Diis T”Siy (Delilah Michelle), Ach Dilec (Mable Jack) and Gullahsam (Eleanor Skin) sided with their elected council.

“We do not agree with this MOU or OW dealing with our rights” said Chief Ludooks. “We are independent, and we don’t need this. The OW doesn’t have the right to speak for this territory. This is not their spokesman’s clan.”

The MOU also does not change anything in the ongoing dispute over the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. In an earlier statement on April 28, the hereditary chiefs called the MOU “a step in the right direction,” but reaffirmed their opposition to the natural gas project.

The five communities represented by the elected chiefs have all signed on to the project. The company says the pipeline is generating dozens of jobs for and millions of dollars in economic benefits to Wet’suwet’en people and communities.

–with a file from The Canadian Press

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