SMITHERS, B.C. – It was a difficult decision to sign a benefit sharing agreement with Coastal GasLink that would allow for a natural gas pipeline through the Wet’suwet’en territory, but a necessary one, an elected band council member says.
Joseph Skin is with the Skin Tyee band, a community of about 134 people within the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, and said many members live in “poverty” on the reserve and the agreement offered an opportunity for a better future.
Skin said he spent most of his life living in a home shared by three or four families. There was no running water in homes on the reserve until 10 or 15 years ago, he said.
“Decisions like this never came easy, I’m not going to say it was easy, because it was very difficult,” he said.
“But like I said, the people who are concerned about our decision, they should come to the reserve and live in these conditions themselves and then have to weigh in on a decision like that.”
Coastal GasLink has said it has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations bands along the pipeline route from northeastern B.C. to LNG Canada’s $40-billion export facility on the coast in Kitimat.
A blockade and the subsequent RCMP arrests while they enforced an injunction earlier this month set off a firestorm of protests across the country. The blockade was erected to stop the company from accessing a road where it planned to start construction work.
Five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the project has no authority without their consent. While elected band councils like the Skin Tyee are administrators of their reserves, the hereditary chiefs say they are in charge of the 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory, including the land where pipeline would be built.
The hereditary chiefs have since reached a “temporary truce” with RCMP, agreeing that members will abide by the injunction allowing the company access through the end of January, so long as another anti-pipeline camp is allowed to remain intact.
The issue of who supports the project is not as simple as a division between hereditary chiefs on one side and elected councils on the other. While the five hereditary clan chiefs say they’re “adamantly opposed,” other hereditary leaders have expressed support, and elected council members have landed on both sides.
At a rally in support of the five hereditary clan chiefs in Smithers, B.C., last Wednesday, representatives from several other First Nations stood up in solidarity against the project. Some held both hereditary and elected chief titles.
Ayla Brown, an elected councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation said the division between hereditary and elected leaders has been overstated, and both share the goal of bettering their communities.
“We’re here to say we stand with you,” she said. “There is no division here.”
Former Wet’suwet’en elected Chief Ray Morris of the Nee Tahi Buhn band said his council signed a deal with Coastal GasLink based on the advice an elder gave when Enbridge was proposing a pipeline through the territory. That elder died at 96 in 2013.
“He was with us when Enbridge first came around and he said, ‘You can’t beat this big company. Get the best deal you can for us.’ And that’s what we did,” said Morris, who was the elected chief for 24 years before being unseated in an election last month.
Signing an agreement means funding for things like education and elder care, he said.
“We’re no different than any other human, we have the same needs as you do.”
Morris said even though band members share lineage with the hereditary clan chiefs, that doesn’t mean they are under the same authority.
“We’re independent of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs,” he said. “We’ve been independent for many years.”
Brian Michell, an elected councillor with the Hagwilget village of about 200 to 230 people in Wet’suwet’en territory said the company approached his council about seven years ago.
The village council never got as far as hearing a dollar figure because they refused to entertain the idea of an agreement, Michell said.
“Our village chief and council, we’re dead against, we can’t sign for something that we can’t control. It’s a hereditary system, we’re an elected council,” he said.
The elected council can only make decisions within the village boundaries, which are not along the pipeline route, he said.
“We couldn’t put a price tag on our hereditary system,” he said.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave an incorrect population for the Skin Tyee band and an incorrect title for Ray Morris.