Over a year ago, governments rid themselves of a political problem and passed it on to the Wet’suwet’en people of B.C.’s northern interior.
Governments had to “do something” when protestors in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs blocked railways and shut down freight and passenger traffic for several weeks.
In Kamloops, traffic was held up at the intersection of Summit and McGill by 30 to 40 protesters on February 7, 2020, by supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Bronwyn, 12 years old, told NL News:
“I just think it’s really wrong to be destroying Mother Nature with all these pipes and everything,” she said. “We were here, we were brought here and then we are destroying our world that we live in. We only have one world.”
From the perspective of colonial governments, the politics are clear. In a court of public opinion, given a choice between pipelines through indigenous territory and hereditary chiefs, the hereditary chiefs will win every time.
For elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs who agree with the pipeline, it’s not that simple.
The governments of B.C. and Canada drove a wedge through the Wet’suwet’en nation when they settled on a memorandum of agreement with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Governments excluded elected chiefs from the MOU.
You can hear the frustration in the voices of people like Maureen Luggi, an elected chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of the six band councils within the Wet’suwet’en Nation. She complained about the lack of communication with the hereditary chiefs:
“We’ve tried and tried and tried to get information with no luck. Really, things seem to have come to a standstill and myself and the other five elected chiefs and councils believe this whole process needs to be stopped immediately.
This is an agreement that regards our rights and title and we weren’t consulted on any of it and it’s still the case. We did not give our consent to the original agreement. We have no information to go on about what is being agreed to on our behalf. It’s been absolutely terrible (Globe and Mail, March 5, 2021).”
From the perspective of a member of a colonizing people, I find it hard to understand why popular opinion would sympathize with traditional, unelected chiefs. The closest parallel I can think of would be a reversal of the Magna Carta in 1215 in which the rights of the monarchy were transferred to citizens.
But that’s what our governments did. They bypassed negotiations with the elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs.
“I can tell you that any ratification of an agreement that [the hereditary chiefs] pursue will be met with objection by the elected councils,” says Luggi. “It will not happen.”
Did they governments of B.C. and Canada really think that unelected hereditary chiefs would bring the Wet’suwet’en people together? Or did they cynically hand over their political problem to the Wet’suwet’en?
Either governments were being naive in thinking that the hereditary chiefs had the necessary skills and authority in consensus building, or were they being crafty in ridding themselves of the problem.