The Wet’suwet’en have endured a challenging year, with internal disputes about the role of Hereditary Chiefs playing out in the national and international news. The Wet’suwet’en people are intensely proud of their culture and history and determined to exercise their rights and title. Appropriately, they seek pathways to autonomy and prosperity. Unfortunately, internal political dynamics have played out publicly, adding to local difficulties and connecting crucial discussions about Wet’suwet’en governance to environmentalist agendas and national anti-pipeline politics.
The local debate about the role of hereditary chiefs and elected India Act band governments is crucial for the Wet’suwet’en and all First Nations seeking to connect traditional government systems with imposed colonial structures. These discussions are happening while two important and intense processes are underway: the development of the economically important Coastal Gaslink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory and the stalled negotiations over the First Nations’ long-standing and legally recognized rights to their traditional territories.
The already challenging local situation has been complicated by the decision of the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia to engage directly with the Hereditary Chiefs and to sign an MOU on the progress of negotiation of Wet’suwet’en land and governance issues. People appear to forget that the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en led the court challenge that resulted in the Delgamuukw v British Columbia,  decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. Hereditary Chiefs have substantial standing in the eyes of the courts and, even more importantly, with the Wet’suwet’en people. Like other First Nations in northern British Columbia, the Indigenous membership will find formal and permanent role in the governance of the Wet’suwet’en.
At present, the political processes are locked in uncertainty and overlapping jurisdictions. Communications between elected Chiefs and Council are unclear, at best; the elected Chiefs asked the Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations to resign for her role in bringing the MOU forward. It is not clear why the federal and provincial governments chose to speak only to the Hereditary Chiefs, even though it is clear that they have to-be-determined and specified roles and rights. Most of the elected Chiefs publicly rebuked the Governments of Canada and British Columbia for persisting with the MOU and for failing to involve them in the discussions. Community members were not given a full opportunity to review the Memorandum of Understanding before the signing, which undercuts the legitimacy of the exercise. Furthermore, the constant interference in Wet’suwet’en affairs by outside forces, who appear more interested in the opposition of some Hereditary Chiefs to the Coastal GasLink pipeline than to the governance aspirations of the Wet’suwet’en people, has complicated the local discussions.
The Wet’suwet’en communities face major and difficult decisions about the future of Wet’suwet’en governance. It is clear that the people, and not just the Hereditary Chiefs, must decide their preferred governance model and that the whole population has to engage in the critical discussions about the resolution of governance systems. land rights. But it is not obvious that a western democratic approach – one vote for one person – is the proper Wet’suwet’en way to proceed. The future governance of the Wet’suwet’en will recognize the elected bands – they are now deeply integrated into the First Nations’ political systems and provide a structure for the administration of community – but the long-term political structures must reflect Wet’suwet’en values, traditions and customs.
The future of Wet’suwet’en governance must be built around the House system, which is the foundation of the First Nations’ culture and central to their aspirations for culturally based self-government. The Hereditary Chiefs also are crucial to Wet’suwet’en governance, although not necessarily in the form currently being represented by a group of the Hereditary Chiefs. There are long-standing culture protocols governing the functions and authority of the Hereditary Chiefs, which local critics argue have been followed during the recently political controversy. If the restructuring of government and the renewal of the First Natioons’ relationships with the federal and provincial governments is to be both meaningful and sustainable, it must be based on Wet’suwet’en culture and must be rooted in history and tradition.
The path forward has to break with current engagement, which unduly privileges the Hereditary Chiefs in their negotiations with the provincial and federal governments. The voices of the elected Chiefs and Councils must be heard and respected, for they play crucial roles in the communities. The Houses and Clans are the rocks upon which our governance must be built. These institutions, working separately and together in the long houses, are central to Wet’suwet’en decision-making and consensus-building; the Hereditary Chiefs are central players in these governance institutions but they do not represent the sum total of Wet’suwet’en political culture and structures.
The future of Wet’suwet’en autonomy and governance requires two things. The first is the willingness on the part of all government – Canada, British Columbia, the Indian Act governments and the traditional governance systems of the Wet’suwet’en — to engage in a restructuring process. The governments chose to speak only to the Hereditary Chiefs. They choose, for short-term political reasons, to exclude the elected chiefs and council, an act of disrespect that has to be understood as the insult that it is. The critical set of conversations has to be extended to include all of the people, through the Houses and the Clans and including the Hereditary Chiefs and the elected Chiefs and Councils. The second element is that external actors, particularly those who bring other agenda to the debate, have to back off.
Governance is of intense interest to the Wet’suwet’en people, the Houses and the Clans. The Wet’suwet’en people worked for decades to create the legal and political space necessary to reinvent their place within Confederation. They are committed to continuing the processes of revitalizing and strengthening Wet’suwet’en culture, decision-making and governance. The more that this is done without their entanglement in other issues and political matters the better it will be for the Wet’suwet’en and – very directly – British Columbia and Canada.
Canadians should watch the Wet’suwet’en, preferably from a distance. They are a remarkable First Nation, with a centuries-old culture and traditions and a doggedness and courage that should be a point of pride for all Canadians. The main issues at play – revising the governance and decision-making, settling long-outstanding land claims, and charting a clear and definitive place for the Wet’suwet’en within the country — are of fundamental importance to the people.
As they have been doing for decades, the Wet’suwet’en have been one of the most innovative, engaged and culturally-determined First Nations in Canada, committed to doing the hard, even painful work of revitalizing their political system while making sure that they respect traditions and values and can manage the complexities and demands of the modern world. Other Canadians, including the anti-pipeline advocates who continue to use the divisions around the role of the Hereditary Chiefs to push their agenda, would serve the Wet’suwet’en a real service if they stood down and left the First Nation to the critical business of renewing and rebuilding their nation.
Theresa Tait Day, Hereditary Chief Wihaliyte
Ken Coates, Macdonald Laurier Institute
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