HOUSTON, B.C. — The fate of a second barrier blocking access to a pipeline project became the focus of First Nations leaders in northern British Columbia Wednesday as they waited to see whether the RCMP would dismantle it.
RCMP roadblocks remained in place for a third day around the territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, where 14 people were arrested on Monday after the Mounties forcibly took apart a first gate blocking access to an area where Coastal GasLink wants to build a natural gas pipeline.
Sitting by a fire outside the RCMP roadblock, Alexander Joseph said the arrest of Indigenous people on their own traditional territory brought back some difficult memories.
“I come from residential (school), I come from the ’60s Scoop,” Joseph said. “It feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. The RCMP and the government coming in, taking away us, from our own culture, our own nature. And that’s not right.”
Joseph, 61, said he plans to remain at the police roadblock, which stops access to a logging road that leads to a second gate erected years ago by the Unist’ot’en house group, which is part of one of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
Joseph is a member of the Lake Babine First Nation more than 100 kilometres away, but he said he wants to show solidarity with other Indigenous people who feel threatened on their land.
“I’ve got so much anger right now, I want to stay here until this is resolved in a positive way,” Joseph said.
The RCMP is allowing the oil and gas company’s contractors to pass through the roadblock to clear trees and debris from the road.
Monday’s arrests were made as the RCMP enforced a court injunction against members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, who had erected the first gate blocking access to the planned pipeline.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline would run through the Wet’suwet’en territory to Kitimat, B.C., where LNG Canada is building a $40-billion export facility.
TC Energy, formerly TransCanada Corp., says it has signed agreements with the elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the path, including the Wet’suwet’en.
However, members of the First Nation opposing the pipeline say the company failed to get consent from its five house chiefs, who are hereditary rather than elected. They argue the elected council only has jurisdiction over the reserve, which is a much smaller area than the 22,000 square kilometres that comprise the Wet’suwet’ens traditional territory.
Premier John Horgan said when plans for the LNG export facility was announced in October the B.C. government concluded all the conditions for the project to proceed had been met.
“All nations, from well head to water line, had signed impact benefit agreements,” he told a news conference in Victoria. “We were, of course, mindful of the challenges at the Unist’ot’en camp. But we were in dialogue and continue to be open for dialogue for hereditary leadership in that community.”
Horgan said he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the impasse on Tuesday night.
“He understands, the federal government understands, that British Columbia is unique in Canada. We have unceded territory in every corner of the province. We have court ruling after court ruling that has affirmed we need to find a better way forward.”
Horgan said there are jurisdictional challenges facing B.C. that are different in every circumstance when it comes to aboriginal land claims and rights.
“I know people would prefer to have, what’s the answer, yes or no, but there isn’t one,” he added.
New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, who represents the area, said the conflict has been developing for years — in part because of a failure to recognize the nuances between elected and hereditary Indigenous governments.
He said Wet’suwet’en band councils have authority over reserves and services, while hereditary chiefs control activities on their traditional territories.
“This is the clash of two forms of government,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Cullen believes the hereditary leadership is looking for guidance from the federal government and expects Ottawa to recognize and accommodate their rights and title.
“There is a whole series of Supreme Court (of Canada) decisions that say if there are established rights and title-holders, if you are going to infringe on those rights, then you have to justify and accommodate for it,” he said.
Trudeau was visiting Kamloops on Wednesday and told the CBC his government has been working on reconciliation, but the dispute over the pipeline is “still an ongoing process.”
“There are a number of people and communities who are supportive, there are a number of folks who disagree with it,” he said in a phone interview with CBC Radio.
Trudeau said he would not visit the blockade site.
“One of the things that is really important is to try to reduce the temperature a little bit,” he added.
— With files from Laura Kane in Kamloops, B.C.
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Amy Smart, The Canadian Press