What you should know about Wet’suwet’en Territories

Freda Huson wears her blanket, a nighthawk, as she waits for police to enforce Coastal GasLink’s injunction at Unist’ot’en Healing Centre near Houston. Photograph: Amber Bracken (I found this image on The Guardian website)

The Territories

The Wet’suwet’en Territories is a large traditional territory about 300 kilometres west of Prince George in Northern BC. It is occupied by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation whose people have been living on and governing these lands under their laws for generations predating colonial occupation of the territory. The We’suwet’en people have been fighting for ownership of their language, culture and land since the beginning of colonization.

The Pipeline

TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink proposes a pipeline to carry natural gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat. It is already in its early construction phase. The proposed Pacific Trail pipeline is run by Chevron and proposes to transport natural gas from Summit Lake to Kitimat for conversion to LNG. (LNG= liquified natural gas)

The elected band councils are in support of the Coastal GasLink pipeline- but the hereditary chiefs are not. Here I’d like to point out the difference between hereditary chiefs and the elected chief council.

Hereditary Chiefs

The hereditary chiefs authority is drawn from Wet’suwet’en law and oversees the management of traditional lands. They represent different houses that make up the First Nations as a whole. The hereditary chief titles are passed down through generations and their law is the law that pre-exists colonization in the territory.

Elected Chiefs

Band councils are comprised of a chief and councilors, who are elected by the community under election procedures defined by the colonial Indian Act. (The Indian Act was established in 1876 and defined how the Canadian government interacts with Indigenous people. This “Act” was formed to impose a leadership structure that resembled Canada’s system of governance.) 

Band councils are responsible for the governance and administration of band affairs, including education, band schools, housing, water and sewer, roads, and other community businesses and services.

Delgamuukw v. British Columbia

The Wet’suwet’en Nation’s fight for sovereignty began long before these pipelines were proposed to go through their land. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim title to the land, based on their pre-Confederation occupation and the fact that they’ve never signed a treaty. Their claim has not been proven in court.

In 1997, the Wet’suwet’en people were part of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in which they sought to have their ancestral and traditional land titles recognized. This land was never ceded through a treaty. The chief justice of the time said that the government should be negotiating with the hereditary chiefs to determine title and the Canadian state never got around to doing that.

The hereditary chiefs have tried for decades to have their title recognized, and here they are again defending their ancestral territory.

In 1984, the hereditary chiefs of both Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations filed a land title action with the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Gitxsan is a neighboring territory of the Wet’suwet’en and it means “People of the River Mist”.

These Indigenous nations wanted to protect the land from logging and to have the Federal Government officially recognize their ancestral land title as well as award compensation for any loss of land.
This case went on into the 90s where it was ruled that any title the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en may have had was taken away when British Columbia joined Confederation.

The two nations appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and was heard in June of 1997. Six months later the Supreme Court’s rulings addressed the following issues:

  • the provincial government had no right to extinguish the Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories
  • the court deemed that oral history is an important type of evidence that courts must treat as equal to other types of evidence
  • clarified the content and definition of “Aboriginal title” which was defined as Indigenous peoples’ exclusive right to the land. It affirmed that Aboriginal title is recognized as an “existing aboriginal right”
  • The government has a duty to consult with Indigenous peoples, before they begin any projects that infringe upon Indiginous Rights

Within this, the court acknowledged some limitations with “Aboriginal Title” which was that Traditional lands cannot be used in a manner that is “irreconcilable with the nature of the claimants’ attachment to those lands.” Meaning that they could not use their ancestral claims to destroy the land- ie: overfishing or overhunting. If this should happen, they would have to surrender their land, and Aboriginal title cannot be transferred to anyone other than the Crown.

Treaty negotiations between Wet’suwet’en, Gitxan, British Columbia and the Federal government continue despite the rulings of this case. As well as various companies operating on traditional lands without permission, this includes division within the community over participation in the proposed LNG pipeline.

Next up, an overview of the Unist’ot’en check-point and where the conflicts are at between the land defenders and the energy corporations as of JAN. 2020.

Thank you for reading “THE BONES”- a process report of art and decolonization.

I am currently researching “THE CURE FOR FEAR” – a physical theatrical/ digital arts exploration around the disconnection that occurs from trauma. In a world where the power holders would have us privatize and distrust our feelings in silence and obedience, how does one begin and continue on a journey of decolonization and reconnection? What transformation happens within the psyche as a person emerges from despondency and disembodiment?

I am always open to feedback, and corrections if it is constructive and kind. No haters please. candicerobertstheatre@gmail.com

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