Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser address the media in Smithers, B.C., Saturday, February 29, 2020.
JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press
Wetsuweten Nation hereditary chiefs and senior government officials have resumed talks in Smithers, B.C., in an effort to resolve a dispute that has triggered protests and blockades across Canada.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Scott Fraser, B.C.s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, arrived in Smithers on Thursday for what had been scheduled for two days of meetings with hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLinks plan to build a $6.6-billion pipeline in northern British Columbia.
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On Saturday morning, the two cabinet ministers said they remain cautiously optimistic about the talks focused on Wetsuweten rights and title to their unceded traditional territory.
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Its the third day of talks, which wasnt the original plan, Mr. Fraser told reporters on Saturday morning. There was work going on till the wee hours this morning and were all still here. Were working with respect. Its a good sign but these are difficult and challenging issues.
Protests and blockades have spread over the past three weeks across the country in solidarity with a group of Wetsuweten hereditary chiefs.
Ms. Bennett said the issues are not only complex but also reflect a history of broken promises and cynicism that is completely understandable among Indigenous people.
We want to be able to change the way, and the kind of partnership that we require nation to nation, she said. Thats what we have to disentangle and make clear.
Asked whether the discussions could be adjourned and resume within weeks, Ms. Bennett said issues related to unresolved land claims are really important and very complex, and were committed to getting the work done.
Coastal GasLink began work in early 2019 on constructing a pipeline that would transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the West Coast, where LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia. The B.C. and federal governments back the LNG terminal and natural gas pipeline.
Coastal GasLink has reached project agreements with 20 elected First Nation councils, including five elected Wetsuweten band councils along the pipeline route.
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But the group of Wetsuweten hereditary chiefs has led a vocal campaign against the pipelines construction, saying hereditary leaders, not elected band councillors, have jurisdiction over their traditional territory located outside of federal reserves.
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross Wetsuweten territory.
Tensions have been rising between Coastal GasLink and Wetsuweten hereditary chiefs since Dec. 31, when a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction against opponents of the project who had set up barricades along a logging road near Houston, B.C.
The Wetsuweten Nation comprises five clans, under which there are 13 house groups, each with a hereditary head chief position (four are currently vacant).
There are no clan chiefs, but eight hereditary house chiefs spanning the five clans are opposed to Coastal GasLink: Warner William, Ron Mitchell, John Ridsdale, Alphonse Gagnon, Warner Naziel, Frank Alec, Fred Tom and Jeff Brown.
The eight men served what they describe as an eviction notice in early 2020 under Wetsuweten law to Coastal GasLink.
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One house chief, Herb Naziel, has taken a neutral position on the pipeline project.
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