The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline crosses their traditional lands and they are refusing permission for this to occur.
They have a case.
When B.C. joined Canada as a province in 1870, the federal government began negotiating land surrender treaties for all Canadian bands, mostly from Western Canada.
The British Columbia government under Joseph Trutch as chief commissioner of lands and works refused to allow more than four acres of land per native family as a land settlement.
The treaties signed on the Prairies gave 160 acres per family for their reserves.
Frustrated by lack of support from the provincial government, the federal government gave up on attempting to get land settlement in B.C.
Since 1870, British Columbia is the only province that does not have land surrender treaties with its First Nations bands.
After 1870, the federal Department of Indian Affairs gave each B.C. band a small reserve that, in most cases, provided Indigenous people room for a house, but not enough to make a living.
Consequently, B.C. bands were in a much poorer situation in relation to all other bands in Canada that had negotiated land of at least 160 acres per family.
For more than a century, bands in B.C. have pleaded and protested this deprivation that has been continued by subsequent provincial governments.
After years of protest and numerous court cases outlining this injustice, the B.C. NDP government, in the 1990s, finally got negotiations started for land surrender treaties.
The provincial government agreed to pay 50 per cent of the cost of settlement (in land).
The provincial and federal governments pledged to give each band full title to their traditional territories.
Negotiations spanning more than 20 years have, so far, done very little in getting treaties signed. The main obstacle has been the bands’ claim for nearly all land in B.C. as their traditional lands.
Although British Common law states that original residents have ownership, to claim most of the province seems to be unrealistic to non-Indigenous negotiators.
This delay prompted the Wet’suwet’en band to take its land claim to court.
The resulting Delgamuukw decision in the Supreme Court of Canada stated the band’s claim was valid. At about the same time, the elected Wet’suwet’en band council gave approval for the gas pipeline to go through its territory.
The separate hereditary chiefs’ decision and the separate approval of the pipeline by the band council is the issue at stake in recent protests. These events have occurred separately from the ongoing B.C. treaty negotiations.
The Wet’suwet’en band had convinced the court that its claim was valid, but the court was not the government agency to determine validity as that was to be done in treaty negotiations.
Thus the hereditary chiefs’ position was not the officially legal position.
Traditional land claims are the exclusive responsibility of ongoing treaty negotiations, not the court . The hereditary chiefs ignore this and offer the Delgamuuku decision as the basis of their right to reject the pipeline.
The painfully slow progress of treaty negotiations in British Columbia is the cause of the protests.
Editor’s note: The letter writer has a Ph.D. in Canadian History from the University of Guelph in 1979 and a master’s degree in Canadian and American History from the University of Oregon in 1974. In addition, he was executive director of the Secwépemc Cultural and Education Society in Kamloops from 1992 to 1994.