The Morning Brief – 05.13.20

By Bruce Carson


Wet’suwet’en Memorandum of Understanding

Should it be Signed Tomorrow?

Its Effect on Indigenous Reconciliation

For those who can think back to a time before COVID-19, there was the dispute between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the RCMP over the construction of the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline which morphed into rail blockades by those who supported the position of the hereditary chiefs.

At the end of February the hereditary chiefs met for three days and developed with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations Scott Fraser an arrangement now referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding which is set to be signed tomorrow.

The agreement which was only released yesterday purports to address rights and title issues dealing with Wet’suwet’en territory among a number of other matters.

The agreement is opposed by the elected chiefs and their band councils. They argue that they were excluded from the negotiations, have not been properly consulted since and want to see the signing delayed until the pandemic passes.

Yesterday, at the prime minister’s daily media availability in front of Rideau Cottage located on the grounds of the Governor General, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked to comment on this situation.

The question was “four elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs are calling for the resignation of Crown –Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett because they say she failed to properly consult with elected leadership over a Memorandum of Understanding with hereditary chiefs which they are calling on your government to reject. What is your response to these calls from the elected leadership and will the virtual signing scheduled for May 14, of the Memorandum of Understanding should go ahead?”

Trudeau’s answer seemed to play down what could unravel into a serious situation just as it did in February. He said “I want to begin by thanking Minister Bennett for the extraordinary work that she has done over the past months and continues to do on a difficult issue that has gone on for decades now.”

“The challenges facing the Wet’suwet’en are significant in terms of how they engage and how they work with the federal government, and we will always be there as a partner to listen, to work with them and to continue moving forward on the path to reconciliation and partnership.”

This was a typical Trudeau response where the real issue is ignored and papered over by some gratuitous remarks about moving forward and reconciliation and partnership. The real issue is not how the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs work with the federal government, while that is important; the issue is the relationship between the hereditary chiefs and the elected chiefs.

If that is not addressed, the situation that arose in February could very possibly occur again.

While parts of the agreement have been made public over the past few weeks, it wasn’t until yesterday that the full agreement with explanatory notes was posted on the Wet’suwet’en website.

The main issue that started the blockades in February, the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline is not part of the agreement. That part of the dispute between the two groups of chiefs has not changed with the hereditary chiefs opposed and the elected chiefs and band councils in favour and they have signed benefit agreements with the pipeline company.

Wording on the website states that the government is “on notice of the severe impact” of the pipeline on the Wet’suwet’en territory. Also “nothing in this agreement restricts the court actions and protests from proceeding.”

And a line which Minister Bennett and others have repeated, governments won’t “ever again” be able to approve a project without the First Nation being part of the decision.

With regard to the pipeline, which is still being constructed, B.C. Premier Horgan at the beginning of March said in the B.C. Legislature that “the permits are in place, it’s approved, and it’s underway. I made that clear.”

But after the signing ceremony was announced in a joint statement issued at the beginning of May, issues arose once again between the hereditary chiefs and those who are elected. The joint statement reads “as negotiations proceed on the affirmation and implementation of Wet’suwet’en rights and title, we will move forward with transparency and openness, and will be further engaging with Wet’suwet’en house groups, neighbouring nations, local governments, stakeholders and the public.”

The joint statement was sent out on behalf of the hereditary chiefs, and the governments of Canada and B.C.  The process to date has been anything but transparent.

The agreement attempts to deal with the governance split by setting out a six month “reunification strategy” in an effort to unite members behind the hereditary leadership.  The agreement also states that power will only be transferred once there is “clarity” in the Wet’suwet’en statutes and laws.

The Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs called for Bennett’s resignation at the beginning of this week saying the agreement was drafted without their consent. They also called on the B.C. and federal government to reject the MOU on rights and title signed with hereditary chiefs.

After discussing the agreement last Tuesday with Ministers Bennett and Fraser the elected chiefs stated “we take issue with improper consultation.”

Since the blockades and the meetings with the hereditary chiefs and Bennett and Fraser which developed the MOU, little has changed, the hereditary chiefs still oppose the pipeline and the elected chiefs remain in favour, except that with the signing of the agreement the hereditary chiefs will be entrenched in their position.

There is now no trust between the federal government and the elected chiefs and between the two groups of chiefs.

This is a situation which should be monitored closely by both governments as surely they don’t want it to boil over while the governments are dealing with COVID-19. However the outstanding issues with the Wet’suwet’en people have to be resolved.

Ideally the signing of the agreement should be put off until there is a better understanding of the agreement by the elected chiefs. If that doesn’t occur then the negotiations required by the agreement should be carried out with at least one government represented to help the negotiations remain on track.

If this situation blows up while the governments are distracted by COVID-19, it could severely hurt reconciliation which has already been set back by the actions that took place in February.

To Come

  • In person meeting of the House of Commons
May 14
  • Monthly survey of manufacturing for March to be released
  • Date set for signing of the MOU between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and governments of Canada and B.C.
  • Bank of Canada releases its Financial Systems Review
May 20
  • Wholesale trade numbers for March to be released
  • CPI numbers for April to be released
May 21
  • Border arrangement between Canada and the U.S. set to expire