Coronavirus forces Wet’suwet’en to explore online talks on rights and title agreement

In-person meetings on unprecedented title agreement postponed as communities prepare for COVID-19 pandemic and Coastal GasLink construction continues

An all-clans meeting to discuss Wet’suwet’en rights and title could be moved online as the COVID-19 crisis upends plans for in-person talks, according to a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en.

“We’re looking at possibly doing something online,” Jennifer Wickham told The Narwhal, saying discussions were also delayed by a death, unrelated to the novel coronavirus, in one of the communities. “I’m not sure what that’s going to look like but there’s definitely multiple things delaying the process.”

Wickham said an all-clans meeting has already been held, but a few clans wanted to meet again before moving forward with decision-making on a draft agreement reached last month between Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, the province and the federal government to expedite the nation’s rights and title process.

“I have no idea when we’re going to reschedule those meetings. Hopefully sometime this week, it could be next week, but it would probably not even be,” she told The Narwhal over the phone.

The Wet’suwet’en traditional territory comprises 22,000 square kilometres in central B.C. If ratified, the agreement could set a new precedent for the affirming of title rights for Indigenous nations in Canada.

In February, opposition to the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline made national headlines with the arrests of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters. The pipeline, which crosses Wet’suwet’en territory, will feed LNG export facilities in Kitimat, including the LNG Canada project, one of the most expensive private investment projects in the province’s history.

The draft arrangement on rights and title does not address the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink project, which Premier John Horgan has said will continue and which a number of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs still oppose.

Coastal GasLink continues to have workers on site, but said in a statement that non-essential workers are working from home and that the company is primarily employing B.C. workers.

“At this time there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases of any individuals working on the Coastal GasLink project,” reads a statement from the company, posted on March 16.

Wet’suwet’en supporters launched an online campaign this week to raise awareness around the ongoing construction of the pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory amid the pandemic.

A tweet from Gidmit’en Checkpoint on Tuesday expressed concern over COVID-19 and industrial activity associated with Coastal GasLink, saying “we do not need any more stress on our local health systems and people.”

Coastal GasLink work camp 9A

A Coastal GasLink work camp near Houston in October, 2019. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

First Nations take health precautions

On Wednesday the province confirmed four cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, which covers the entire northern half of the province, an area of 600,000 square kilometres.

Wet’suwet’en First Nation band council elected Chief Maureen Luggi told members via Facebook live on Tuesday that “extra precautionary steps” are in place to deal with the potential of cases in the community.

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of six elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, has closed its daycare and band office and is only maintaining essential services.

First Nations are taking safety measures but many also express concern over lack of resources compared to other communities.

The Wet’suwet’en Palling community has had a do-not-consume water advisory in effect since 2012.

An all-chiefs phone call to discuss COVID-19 is scheduled for Friday, according to a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

The federal government announced funding for Indigenous peoples to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but on Tuesday the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called for more coordinated measures to be taken.

“With the COVID-19 health emergency comes the urgency of alleviating the burdens placed upon Indigenous and vulnerable communities who must confront systemic under-resourcing and barriers to healthcare on a daily basis,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in an online statement.

The Narwhal did not receive a response from Crown-Indigenous Relations by publication time.

To understand B.C.’s push for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, think fracking, LNG Canada and the Site C dam

Delayed negotiations for title agreement

Details of the Wet’suwe’ten draft agreement have been kept out of the public eye but have been shared with the nation’s communities through a series of house and clan meetings.

On March 1, Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said if the nation approved of the agreement, they planned to return to Wet’suwet’en territory for ratification.

In an email to The Narwhal, Sarah Plank, spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the ministry is “in extraordinary times with the COVID-19 pandemic” which has “affected planned events across the country.”

“The ratification process for the proposed path forward to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title is no different, and we support the hereditary chiefs’ decision to pause that process to help protect the health and well-being of Wet’suwet’en community members. The Province’s commitment to the proposed arrangement remains unwavering, and we are at the ready to return to the territory to complete the process as soon as the time is right and it makes sense to do so,” Plank said.

In a joint statement, Fraser, Bennett and Hereditary Chief Woos said the arrangement “will breathe life into the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision,” in which the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan peoples had never surrendered their land or had their title extinguished.

B.C.’s most prominent example of Indigenous rights and title is laid out in the Tsilhqot’in decision, which granted the nation rights to 1,700 square kilometres of traditional territory. The nation spent 25 years fighting that legal challenge through the courts.

Updated March 19, 2020 6:18 p.m. PST: This article was updated to include comment from B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

— With files from Carol Linnitt and Arik Ligeti

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