OTTAWA — Theresa Tait Day, a former Wet’suwet’en hereditary leader, told MPs a pipeline project had been “hijacked” by five male chiefs and criticized Liberal cabinet ministers for making a secret deal with them.
Speaking at a House of Commons committee meeting, Tait Day said the decision last month to meet with hereditary chiefs was a mistake.
“The government has legitimized the meeting with the five hereditary chiefs and left out their entire community,” she said. “We can not be dictated to by a group of five guys.”
Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett met with a group of hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en community in Northern B.C. last month after weeks of crippling railway blockades.
After several days of meetings, the two sides came to an agreement, the details of which are secret while the hereditary chiefs take the deal back to their community.
The hereditary chiefs are opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a project that would bring liquified natural gas to the B.C. coast for export.
But Tait Day, part of a group called the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition who was stripped of her title of hereditary chief after supporting the Coastal GasLink project, said the vast majority of the people in Wet’suwet’en territory want the project to go ahead.
“This project has been hijacked by the five chiefs,” she said. “Over 80 per cent of the people in our community said they wanted LNG to proceed.”
The matrilineal coalition was put together in 2015 to help the Wet’suwet’en people come to a decision on the pipeline project. It received funding from Coastal Gas, but Tait Day said that had not influenced their decision to support the project.
We feel like we have been hijacked by the protestors who have their own agenda
In addition to support from Tait Day and other members of the coalition, the project had the backing of elected band council chiefs. Critics said those band council chiefs were part of the Indian act system. Tait Day said band councils were a flawed system, but their opinions shouldn’t be ignored.
“The Indian Act system must be reformed, but that does not invalidate the role of the elected councils,” she said.
She said her community needed economic prosperity to build a more sustainable community.
“We need to have the benefits of our land. We need to be able to have equity stakes in projects that come forward.”
The hereditary chiefs were being supported by environmentalists, Tait Day said, who were disrespecting the rest of the Wet’suwet’en community.
“We feel like we have been hijacked by the protestors who have their own agenda.”
Wetsuweten hereditary leader Chief Woos, centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser arrive to speak to reporters in Smithers, B.C., March 1, 2020.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
Bennett said she and her B.C. counterpart were prepared to return to the community to sign the agreement when the Wet’suwet’en community ratified it. She said the agreement was only meant to be the start of the process.
“What we agree on is that now the conversation begins. How does the nation make decisions together?” she said. “That is why the hereditary chiefs chose to take it back to their house and their clans to see if there is support for that.”
But Tait Day criticized the consultation process.
The chiefs who met the ministers have indicated they would take the draft agreement to the community to get consensus on whether to move forward. But Tait-Day said they had not held large public meetings, only smaller clan meetings of 20 or fewer people.
Bennett said the agreement wasn’t about the pipeline project, but taking broader steps to solve the land claim settlement that the Wet’suwet’en people have had outstanding for years.
“My appearance was not about one project. It is about the future of Canada.”
We need to have the benefits of our land
She said settling land claims and getting Indigenous communities to self governance was the key to prosperity for Indigenous communities and would prevent the kind of stand-offs that emerged in this situation.
“Where there is a process on how a nation takes a decision, that achieves the kind of certainty that allows investments.”
Tait Day agreed the broader issue needed a resolution, but said they also could not ignore good projects that were in front of them.
“We need a mechanism as a nation that is democratic and inclusive where we can all make decisions.”
Several Conservative MPs also asked whether the agreement would be returned to Parliament for scrutiny. Bennett emphasized this was just the first step.
She said a final land claim settlement would come to Parliament, but she hoped when that happened parliamentarians would respect the work of negotiators.
Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said he had spoken with elected band council chiefs in the area, who felt completely left out of the process.
“They made it very clear to me that they felt slighted by the minister,” he said.
He said Bennett could have met with a wider section of leaders in the community.
“There is a real opportunity to have all Wet’suwet’en make this decision, come into one room and talk and they’re waiting for that to happen,” said Zimmer.
He said he was concerned that Bennett had met only with people who oppose the project when there were so many people in support of the pipeline.
“It leans the whole conversation on one side, it’s not even a fair conversation.”
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