BY BILL PHILLIPS
John Rustad served as Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation for four years and both the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en camps are located in his Nechako Lakes riding, so he has some insight into the issues surrounding the Wet’suwet’en blockades south of Houston.
He says dealing with the Wet’suwet’en is challenging and frustrating.
“I worked for four years with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to try to find a resolution to this,” he said Monday. “The only agreement they would accept was a child support agreement.”
Last week the RCMP arrested 14 people when they dismantled a gate at the Gidimt’en camp on the West Morice Forest Service Road. The blockade, along with a more permanent one called the Unist’ot’en camp, have been erected to block Coastal GasLink workers set to begin work on a natural gas pipeline through the area. Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en are two of five Wet’suwet’en clans. There are also 13 houses.
In 2016, the province entered into an agreement with the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition, which had the goal discussing economic development opportunities, specifically the natural gas pipeline, with the Wet’suwet’en. The coalition was comprised of hereditary chiefs, elders, youth and clan members in Wet’suwet’en territory east to Babine Lake, south to Burns Lake, west to Cheslatta Lake and north Hagwilget.
Rustad says some of those meetings were disrupted by those who oppose the pipeline, adding not all the Wet’suwet’en people oppose the pipeline. The elected band and council have endorsed the and signed a benefit agreement and, Rustad says, the three Wet’suwet’en bands in the Nechako Lake riding, have endorsed the project, including hereditary chief Helen Michelle of the Skin Tyee Nation.
“The community of Witset went through a process of engaging the community,” said Rustad. “There was about two-thirds support for the project, so the chief and council voted in favour.”
Several hereditary chiefs, however, remain opposed to the project and are committed to stopping the project.
“There is no path forward,” said Rustad. “Their solution is to go around (Wet’suwet’en territory) and that is the only solution they will accept. This is a very challenging situation.”
Part of the problem is the split with the Wet’suwet’en community between elected band and council and the hereditary chiefs. Some have said that elected band and council are to deal with issues on reserve, while hereditary chiefs are responsible the traditional territory.
The hereditary chiefs often refer to the 1997 Delgamuukw court decision, which defined Aboriginal title as Indigenous peoples’ exclusive right to the land, and affirmed that Aboriginal title is recognized as an “existing aboriginal right” in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Rustad says that doesn’t necessarily mean aboriginal rights and title lies exclusively with the hereditary chiefs.
“Delgamuukw ruled that aboriginal rights and title lies with the people,” said Rustad. “It never ruled it lies with the hereditary chiefs.”
And that is the crux of the issue … who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people?
Rustad says the majority of the Wet’suwet’en are in support of the pipeline going ahead and that “a faction of the Wet’suwet’en are out to try and stop a project.”
Rustad also believes that the protestors are supported, financially, by large environmental organizations, primarily from the U.S., that are opposed to resource extraction.
“They call it the ‘hive’ and they call their activists and protestors the ‘swarm,’” Rustad posted on his Facebook page this week. “You dare say anything against this group and you are in for a storm of abuse, threats, etc… They are very well organized as displayed by the protests that happened last week across this country. If these people are successful in stopping a project, they are not there afterwards to support the people. They are not there to create meaningful jobs or services. They will abandon these people that they have misled and used and move on to their next protest project … Those nations who engage economically are lifting their people out of poverty, reducing violence, seeing children graduating and building futures and most importantly, strengthening their own culture and identity.
“This is the one thing that these protestors will never understand. They have no plan for resolving poverty for their people. They have no plan to develop training that leads to meaningful employment. They have no plan on how to support infrastructure and services for their people. They have no plan.”
Rustad hopes the situation will de-escalate, and an agreement last week between hereditary chiefs and the RCMP to allow access has been holding. However, he isn’t optimistic.
So what is the solution?
“Government, both provincial and federal, need to sit down and get serious about solving the land question,” said Rustad. “Rights and title exist, we have to deal with it.”
He says that will mean transferring land. He added that it also has to be done in a timely fashion. The treaty process, which has resulted in only a handful of agreements in “a generation,” isn’t working.