Premier John Horgan appointed former Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen as a liaison between the provincial government and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.
Cullen, who represented the riding for the NDP from 2004 until he retired from politics in 2019, has been appointed to provide fact-finding, facilitation and analysis to support the peaceful resolution to the Wet'suwet'en blockade of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project southwest of Houston, B.C.
"I'm pleased all parties have agreed to the appointment of a liaison," Horgan said in a press release. "Nathan has agreed to act as an intermediary in the hopes of finding a solution to this challenging dispute."
A B.C. provincial spokesperson said Cullen will not be speaking to the media about his role at this time.
Cullen will work with the with the Wet'suwet'en Denezeh and Tsakozeh, RCMP, Coastal GasLink, the provincial public service and other parties toward ending the blockade holding up construction on the $6.6 billion, 670-kilometer long pipeline project connecting northeastern B.C. to the LNG Canada natural gas export terminal under construction in Kitimat.
Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with 20 elected First Nations along the route, but the hereditary chiefs say it has no authority without their consent.
Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Na'moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale, said he and the other hereditary chiefs agreed with the choice of Cullen as a liaison, because he had been the Member of Parliament for the region for 14 years and lives in Wet'suwet'en territory.
"Nathan Cullen had approached us, so we had him sit in with the (RCMP Deputy Commissioner Jennifer) Strachan," Na'moks said.
Na'moks said they were aware Cullen's appointment was coming, and he hopes the former MP – with his contacts at the provincial and federal levels of government – will be able to facilitate government-to-government talks.
"There is a level of trust that currently we don't share with many current elected officials or former," Na'moks told The Canadian Press. "It gives me more confidence than the premier of the province."
When asked if he was optimistic the situation could be resolved, Na'moks said, "Not particularly. I have to rely on history."
"We don't think the provincial government has upheld the honour of the Crown."
Horgan has said that the rule of law must be respected and that the project will be built, but has not met with the hereditary clan chiefs since this year's impasse began.
Horgan offered to have a phone conversation and sent Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser for a meeting. But Na'moks said the chiefs were in a conflicting meeting at the time of Fraser's visit, and they prefer face-to-face meetings with fellow decision-makers.
The blockade is located on the Morice West Forest Service Road and Morice River Bridge – located 47 km southwest of Houston. On Jan. 3, the Wet'suet'en hereditary chiefs and members of the Unist'ot'en camp issued an "eviction notice" to workers at camp 9A and the surrounding area.
Earlier this month the RCMP established a checkpoint at the 27-km point of the Morice West Forest Service Road to control access to the blockade area, after police found stacks of tires, kindling and fuel were found ready to light along the road and trees were pre-cut so they were ready to fall. In addition, supporters of the Wet'suwet'en have fallen logs across the road, the Wet'suwet'en chiefs said in a press conference in Smithers earlier this month.
"We have no intention of meeting with Coastal GasLink," Na'moks said, and they remain determined that the pipeline not be built. "But we'll make remain peaceful."
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said he's pleased with Cullen's appointment and remains hopeful the chiefs will meet with the company.
The dispute has not yet affected the project's schedule and it remains on track for service in 2023, he said. He declined to say exactly when the impasse would begin affecting the schedule.
"We know that time is getting short according to our schedule and we will start seeing impacts at some point," he said.
Before the eviction notice was issued, the company was in the process of dismantling a temporary work camp in the disputed area and building a larger one that would allow major construction to begin this summer.
About 500 workers were expected to work in the area over the next 18 months or so, he said.
Small local route changes are possible, like a 40-kilometre or so diversion already approved south of Houston, he said.
But a major reroute at this stage is not possible, Pfeiffer said, because the regulatory work required would have a "major scheduling impact."
The challenging terrain created by the Coast Mountains means the planned route would have the lowest environmental impacts based on river crossings and other considerations, he added.
"Every pipeline that's come along has looked through there because that is the area that is most technically viable," Pfeiffer said.
The company's focus is on reaching a peaceful resolution and avoiding enforcement of the injunction by the RCMP. If the chiefs consent to a meeting, Pfeiffer said the company would like to discuss possible benefits for the Wet'suwet'en members they represent, he said.
— With files from The Canadian Press