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Canada, B.C. and Wet’suwet’en ink MOU on rights and title

Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations

A memorandum of understanding on establishing rights and title for the Wet’suwet’en was signed Thursday by hereditary chiefs, the province, and  the federal government.

The MOU recognizes Wet’suwet’en rights and title throughout the territory and sets out a process to negotiate an agreement on how to implement them.

“With this MOU, we will now begin to work toward a better understanding between Canada and British Columbia, and we will be able to strengthen better relationships and establish strong economies. Wet’suwet’en People, regardless of political views and opinions can now visualize certainty,” said Wet’suwet’en Dinï’ze Woos, (Frank Alec), Cas Yihk, Gitdumt’en (Bear Clan).

The deal was reached earlier this year following days of meetings between the chiefs and Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser and federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett in Smithers. The meetings were prompted by protests in several cities around the country and blockades of rail lines here in B.C. and Alberta.

While the hereditary chiefs took the deal back to the Wet’suwet’en prior to endorsing the MOU,  elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs say they have been shut out of a memorandum of understanding on rights and title set to signed by several hereditary chiefs, the province, and Ottawa.

“The MOU consultation process has lacked any semblance of credibility,” said four elected chiefs, Patricia Prince, Nee Tahi Buhn Indian Band; Rosemarie Skin, Skin Tyee Nation; Dan George, Ts’ilh Kaz Kod First Nation; Marueen Luggi, Wet’suwet’en First Nation; Sandra George, Witset First Nation, in a statement issued last week. “The federal government, the provincial government and the hereditary chiefs have completely ignored many clan members and elected chiefs. These discussions have not included openness and respect for all parties.”

Regardless, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs; Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation; and Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, signed the MOU on May 14, 2020, via videoconference. The MOU was signed virtually to respect guidelines from public health officials to protect the health and well-being of people and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fraser told Black Press that the issue regarding whether the elected chiefs or hereditary chiefs speak for the Wet’suwet’en is an ‘internal’ issue.

“The MOU is the start of a negotiation process,” said Fraser. “We have a great deal of work ahead of us to determine how we will implement rights and title together, and reunification within Wet’suwet’en Nation is key to this work moving forward successfully.”

The MOU commits Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the provincial and federal governments to negotiate a series of agreements that will resolve matters of rights and title outstanding for decades since the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa ruling. Any formal agreements reached as a result of negotiations will require approval by each of the parties.

“The signing of this MOU marks an important step in our work to rebuild our relationship with the Wet’suwet’en and towards affirming and implementing their rights and title. As negotiations begin, a comprehensive, inclusive and transparent engagement process will support the parties so they can work together towards a final agreement on the affirmation and implementation of Wet’suwet’en rights and title. These discussions are breathing life into the 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision, which is part of our country’s work on the path of reconciliation,” said Bennett.

As outlined in the MOU, the three parties will now begin negotiating an agreement on a path to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title. Topics to be discussed will include nation reunification, revenue-sharing, compensation, land and resources, child and family wellness, water, fish, land-use planning and decision-making.

The MOU does not address the issue of the Coastal GasLink being constructed through the territory. Two court injunctions were used to remove blockades of the construction, which prompted protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en across the country.

The MOU signing has also drawn criticism from Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad.

“Indigenous people in Canada were not allowed to participate in democracy through voting until the 1960s,” he posted on his Facebook page Wednesday. “It was a tremendous fight for Indigenous people to be recognized by Canadian law and to have that right. The MOU that is about to be signed will work towards eliminating the Wetsuweten’s right to vote on their leadership concerning their rights and title. In my opinion, this is just wrong.”

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