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B.C. minister travels to Smithers, but isn’t able to meet hereditary chiefs

Update: Scott Fraser, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, travelled to Smithers on Wednesday, but didn’t end up meeting with hereditary chiefs, who oppose construction of a natural gas pipeline through their territory.
Green Party MP Paul Manly and former leader Elizabeth May address a news conference at the Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria on Tuesday.

Update: Scott Fraser, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, travelled to Smithers on Wednesday, but didn’t end up meeting with hereditary chiefs, who oppose construction of a natural gas pipeline through their territory.

The chiefs have said they want to meet face to face with the premier, who has said the pipeline will be built

Fraser said he had a respectful conversation with representatives of the office of the Wet’suwet’en.

“In the meeting we mutually committed to safety as a shared priority,” said Fraser, in a statement.

“It’s unfortunate that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were unable to meet with us today. The most important part of any relationship is listening to one another and that was my only goal by being here today.

“We will continue to search for ways to continue dialogue and to attempt to achieve a peaceful and safe resolution,” said Fraser.

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Amid rising tensions over a proposed natural gas pipeline that five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose in their territory, B.C.’s minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation will visit Smithers today.

Scott Fraser, NDP MLA for mid-Island Pacific Rim, will meet Wet’suwet’en Chief Nam’oks, also known as John Risdale, after Premier John Horgan declined an invitation last week. “The premier proposed this meeting to continue dialogue and to try to achieve a peaceful and safe resolution on this issue,” Fraser said in a statement on Tuesday.

The visit comes after days of questions about why Horgan turned down an invitation for an in-person meeting with Chief Nam’oks, despite being in the area.

The premier said he had a pre-arranged touring schedule and questioned the appropriateness of the visit, noting he can’t vary an injunction order by the courts, or direct the RCMP in fulfilment of their duties.

The premier said his offer of a telephone conversation with Chief Nam’oks was rebuffed.

At issue is the proposed $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline — a key part of the $40-billion LNG Canada project — that would span 670 kilometres across northern B.C., starting near Dawson Creek and extending to an export terminal at Kitimat, where an $18-billion liquefied natural gas export plant is being built. About one-quarter of the line crosses Wet’suwet’en territory.

Hereditary chiefs representing five clans of Wet’suwet’en Nation near Smithers say the project does not have their consent. Although the hereditary chiefs are against it, five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils on the route, as well as 15 other elected Indigenous band councils, have supported it. These 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route have also signed a benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink, which has provincial approval to build the pipeline.

Tensions escalated on Dec. 31 when a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction against Wet’suwet’en members and anti-pipeline protesters, allowing Coastal GasLink to access the pipeline route. On Jan. 4, the hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice to the pipeline company from Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

Supporters of the hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en are building a new support camp, for a total of three.

On Jan. 13, the RCMP began restricting access to the area where the court injunction applies, setting up a checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark of a forestry road into the work site out of safety concerns.

Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said safety is a concern and he has asked Chief Nam’oks to meet “to find common ground and a mutually agreeable solution.” Work in the vicinity remains suspended due to impassable roads, said the company.

First Nations who support the liquefied natural gas industry in B.C. say human-rights advocates failed to do their research when they called for the pipeline project to be halted.

The First Nations LNG Alliance issued open letters on Sunday to B.C. human rights commissioner Kasari Govender and the United Nations Committee to End Racial Discrimination after they called for the project to be stopped in the face of opposition from Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs.

Karen Ogen-Toews, CEO of the First Nations Alliance, said in the letter to Govender that the pipeline was approved through a democratic process that Indigenous people participated in freely, and neither the committee nor commissioner consulted supportive Indigenous groups before taking a position.

Nanaimo-Ladysmith Green MP Paul Manly, who visited Chief Nam’oks at the weekend with B.C. Green Party interim leader Adam Olsen — who represents Saanich North and the Islands — said the hereditary chiefs want and deserve government-to-government negotiation.

“They don’t want to negotiate with Coastal GasLink at this point and they don’t feel like they should negotiate with the RCMP,” Manly said at a news conference at the Inn at Laurel Point hotel on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

“They just want to discuss this with the federal and provincial governments and the leadership.”

Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Horgan to recall RCMP officers. The RCMP presence and blockades are an indication of political failure, May and Manly said.

“The federal and provincial governments’ actions demonstrate complete disrespect for the constitutional role of the hereditary chiefs in the management of their land,” May said.

She said hereditary chiefs are portrayed by some as “some sort of New Age cult” instead of a long-standing governance structure as legitimate as the elected councils. The Wet’suwet’en chiefs have proposed an alternative route to the Coastal GasLink pipeline: “Why is that not being discussed?” asked May.

The Green Party’s call for governments to respect Wet’suwet’en rights aligns with its opposition to the development of liquefied natural gas or any other fossil-fuel infrastructure in the province.

The federal and provincial governments are “talking out of both sides of the mouth” in telling Canadians they are committed to real climate action and at the same time approving pipelines, May said.

Canadians continue to be sold a zero-sum game, she said. “You either take the fossil-fuel projects that threaten to destroy human civilization or you’re condemning people to poverty,” she said.

May said an Indigenous world view can help to create a “path to prosperity” in a post-carbon world, “but we have to start by talking.”

Horgan said last week in Victoria all the permits are in place for the Coastal GasLink project to proceed. “The courts have confirmed this project can proceed and it will proceed,” he said.

In November, B.C. became the first province to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, known as UNDRIP, which requires that governments and industry acquire the “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous Nations before engaging in projects on their territories, including resource projects.

But Horgan said the declaration is “forward-looking” and doesn’t apply retroactively to in-progress projects such as the pipeline.

Major construction is expected to begin this summer.

May disagrees and said the debate about what consent means isn’t even an issue “because no one’s consulted with them.”

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— with files from The Canadian Press