NEWS UNSETTLED | We do not negotiate with Indians: B.C.’s Approach to Wet’suwet’en Relations

News Unsettled Opinions
Ta’Kaiya Blaney and Kolin Sutherland-Wilson chained together in a lockbox at a sit-in protest on Jan. 21. Photo by Michael John Lo

In 1912, the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia is established in order to address the question of Indian reserves. During this commission, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs reject the idea of reserves and maintain claims to their respective territories. 

In 1923, Deskaheh, a Hereditary Chief of the Haudenosaunee, travels to Geneva using a passport issued by the Six Nations Confederacy Council. He lobbies for the Haudenosaunee to be recognized as an independent state by the League of Nations. Deskaheh manages to gather the support of nations such as Ireland, Panama, Persia, and Estonia, but is still denied an audience with the League.

That same year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police build a permanent barracks on Haudenosaunee land, commence raids on the homes of the people living there, and prohibit Indigenous people from cutting firewood in order to heat their homes. 

In 1924, it is mandated by the Governor-General of Canada that the pre-existing government of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations Confederacy Council, be dissolved and replaced with a government adhering to Canada’s Indian Act. The RCMP proceeded to raid the Six Nations Confederacy Council, stealing important legal documents and wampums. Under the protection of the RCMP, a Band Council is established at Six Nations. 

In 1927, the Indian Act is amended in order to make it a criminal offense for Indigenous peoples to raise funds, hire lawyers, or seek legal advice regarding land claims.  

In 1951, after nearly 70 years of enforcement, the Potlatch Ban is repealed. Despite having been criminalized and driven underground for decades, it is now legal for the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to pursue land claims regarding their territories. 

Despite the best efforts of the RCMP and B.C., the Wet’suwet’en people remain strong and undeterred on the land they have protected for countless generations. 

In 1984, the famous Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case is brought to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. During this case, Hereditary Chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en present thousands of years of oral history over the course of 374 days. They argue that their title, jurisdiction, and rights had never been extinguished by British Columbia. 

In 1991, Justice Allan McEachern rules in favor of British Columbia, stating that Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Aboriginal title, jurisdiction, and Aboriginal rights, had all been extinguished by British Columbia. 

In 1993, the Court of Appeal of British Columbia rejects McEachern’s ruling regarding the extinguishment of Aboriginal rights. The case is ordered back to trial to determine the scope of those rights. 

In 1994, British Columbia commences treaty negotiations with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. The province withdraws from these negotiations in 1996, and litigation resumes. 

In 1997, six Justices of the Supreme Court of British Columbia determine that British Columbia had no right to extinguish Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en rights and title. It was also determined that oral history was admissible as evidence in a court of law. It was also recognized that the 54 “Houses” of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en, as represented by their respective Hereditary Chiefs, each have the authority to pursue their own claims. A new trial is ordered, but it was more-so encouraged that the province engage in “good-faith” negotiations with the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.  

In 2008, after years of unproductive negotiations, the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs decide to opt out of the B.C. Treaty Process. They continue to assert their claims to title, jurisdiction, and rights.  

In 2009, the Unist’ot’en, A Wet’suwet’en people belonging to the Dark House, begin the exclusive occupation of their territory. All outsiders are turned away unless they obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of the Hereditary Chiefs responsible for that territory. During this time, British Columbia begins plans to run multiple fossil fuel pipelines through their land.   

In 2015, Coastal GasLink (CGL), a company seeking to install a pipeline transporting fracked hydrocarbon gas through Unist’ot’en territory, is unable to obtain “free, prior, and informed consent” from the Unist’ot’en, and are denied entry. Instead, CGL signs agreements with Band Councils on Wet’suwet’en land, despite the councils only having jurisdiction over small parcels of land reserved by the Indian Act.  

If we look at history, the “rule of law” is not always just.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issues an injunction against individuals guarding Unist’ot’en territory. In response, Wet’suwet’en from the Gidimt’en Clan set up a checkpoint on the only road accessing Unist’ot’en territory. Numerous Wet’suwet’en and allies gather to uphold Wet’suwet’en law and defend Unist’ot’en territory. 

In 2019, the RCMP, equipped with body armor, assault rifles, and the clearance to use “lethal” force, violently dismantle the Gidimt’en checkpoint. Media is forcibly excluded, 14 unarmed people are arrested, and personal property is destroyed. Under the threat of escalating police violence, the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs allow CGL entry onto Unist’ot’en territory while maintaining their stance that they do not consent. In a statement regarding the situation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says: “We are a country of the rule of law.” 

Towards the end of the same year, the Supreme Court of British Columbia rules again in favor of CGL and extends the previous injunction. Justice Church decides that Wet’suwet’en law is not “effectual” unless recognized by the state or a judge. Church also decides that blockades cannot be recognized as an extension of Wet’suwet’en law. This is despite the legal test for Aboriginal title established in Delgamuukw, where Aboriginal title, and the rights that flow from it, are derived from an exclusive occupation of land.

In 2020, Hereditary Chiefs representing all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en reject Church’s ruling, and proceed to evict CGL from Unist’ot’en territory. In a press conference they state that CGL is not welcome on Wet’suwet’en territory, the RCMP must withdraw, and that B.C. and Canada must meet directly with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to discuss the issue.

In response, B.C. Premier John Horgan states that he will not be talking to the Hereditary Chiefs, while stating that “the rule of law” must prevail and that the project will proceed. The Hereditary Chiefs are portrayed as dissidents. The RCMP continues to intimidate Wet’suwet’en people and have established a new “exclusion zone” on Wet’suwet’en territory. They continue to deny food, warm clothing and supplies to the people beyond the “exclusion zone.”   

If we look at history, the “rule of law” is not always just. In the weeks following B.C.’s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), we have regressed to a time where sovereign Indigenous peoples are once again being criminalized on their own land.      

If we look to the future, there is no doubt that the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs will continue to uphold their way of life, as they have since the imposition of colonialism. Despite the best efforts of the RCMP and B.C., the Wet’suwet’en people remain strong and undeterred on the land they have protected for countless generations. 

With all eyes on the Wet’suwet’en, the RCMP have yet to mobilize beyond their “exclusion zone.” They recognize that the “optics” are “not good” when assault rifles are deployed against unarmed Indigenous people. B.C. is attempting to perpetuate a narrative that the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en are dissidents and “unelected” radicals, despite their shared history at the Supreme Court of Canada and through the B.C. Treaty Process. Do not let them justify their ongoing infringement of Wet’suwet’en rights, as the RCMP are poised for yet another violent raid on unarmed Wet’suwet’en people and allies. 

Demand that B.C. withdraw the RCMP, and demand that B.C. commences a dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. The land has never been ceded, so act accordingly. Work to reject everyday acts of colonialism to be your best self, because dismantling ongoing colonial processes would be a great start to 2020!