In dealing with the Indigenous governance issue that is at the heart of the Wet’suwet’en dispute, Ottawa must not show favouritism to one side or faction, and must ensure that all parts of Wet’suwet’en society are represented as the community designs its internal governance processes.
This will be critical as the Wet’suwet’en people meet internally to discuss these matters, as is mandated by the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Ottawa, British Columbia, and the Wet’suwet’en people.
Showing favour or manipulating the process to favour one side would not only undermine the idea that Indigenous people must be allowed to decide their governance structures on their own, but also opens up the whole process to political manipulation by outside bodies.
Unfortunately, this seems to be already happening. While the MOU process can be salvaged, it was very rushed, and there is a strong case to be made that the behind closed doors nature of the negotiation marginalized one party in particular – the elected chiefs of Wet’suwet’en. Also, when those same chiefs asked for a delay to the signing – which seemed reasonable – they were denied by Ottawa. The minister blamed COVID-19.
It has also been revealed that the deal has been a subject of significant controversy within the Wet’suwet’en community.
Now, it is becoming increasingly transparent that this government is attempting to marginalize and silence the elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people. There is an agenda at work here.
In late May, it was reported that the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs had called witnesses to testify about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in relation to Indigenous peoples. During the committee proceedings, the Conservative MP for Haliburton–Kawartha Lakes–Brock, Ontario introduced a motion to invite the elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people as witnesses. The motion was designed to give these leaders a voice to explain how the COVID-19 outbreak affected their ability to be consulted about the details about the MOU. However, the Liberal and NDP members of the committee defeated the motion, thereby preventing the elected chiefs from having their say.
So, it seems that at every step of the way there is intentional decision making to marginalize and exclude the elected chiefs.
Given that the elected chiefs have been a voice strongly in favour of the Coastal GasLink project, this only re-affirms the idea that the government does have an agenda of scuttling energy projects in this country. That can be a reasonable conclusion given the government’s record of ignoring or downplaying energy interests in the country, and Ottawa’s lack of interest in this Indigenous community prior to this dispute.
In fact, many non-Indigenous people who now support the hereditary chiefs in this dispute, and ignore the elected chiefs, did not know the name of the community before the Coastal GasLink issue became newsworthy. Many only supported the hereditary chiefs because they opposed an energy project. The governance issue was only instrumental to that end.
The government should not follow that behaviour by only supporting certain chiefs because they support the energy policy outcome they prefer.
Including the elected chief of this community should transcend party politics as it is the proper way for this community to clarify its own internal governance processes. Given that these leaders are elected by the Wet’suwet’en people and represent popular will, they should have a leading role in this process.
Governments of all parties must recall that in the 1997 Delgamuukw ruling by the Supreme Court, the finding was that Aboriginal title was held communally and the Indigenous rights and title resided in the nation as a whole.
Therefore, no government should attempt to undermine the Wet’suwet’en’s own internal way of resolving these governance issues by favouring one side outright or manipulating the negotiation system to get the policy outcome they prefer.
Of course, this whole matter does not only extend to the Wet’suwet’en people, but to all Indigenous groups that any government has dealings with.
Clearly, this sort of political manipulation should not become the norm in determining these issues of Indigenous rights and title. No government should be excluding Indigenous voices – especially elected ones – that they do not like for whatever agenda. Also, closed-down sessions on important issues that affect so many people should not set a precedent in the way the government conducts its business.
As a first practical step, this government could start by giving the elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people their equal say in all negotiations involving rights and title moving forward.