Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs demand meeting with B.C., federal officials

VICTORIA -- Hereditary leaders of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation blockading a natural gas pipeline project in northern B.C. say they don't want to meet with company officials and are instead demanding talks with the B.C. and federal governments, and the commissioner of the RCMP.

"If there are going to be meetings, it will be between the decision-makers," said Na'moks, a hereditary chief of the Wet'suwet'en nation also known as John Risdale, during a news conference Tuesday in Smithers.

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"We will not meet with local officials. ... Coastal GasLink is merely a proponent and they are uninvited to this land. But we are willing to meet with the governments of British Columbia and Canada."

It was not clear if or when the two governments or RCMP would send representatives to the area, near Houston, to try to defuse a tense standoff that may result in police enforcing a court injunction to clear the pipeline construction site of protesters.

"The company has been clear that it would like to speak with hereditary chiefs involved to facilitate access," said a statement from B.C.'s Energy Ministry. "We encourage representatives to engage with the company to achieve a resolution that respects the court's decision and ensures safety for all."

The federal public safety minister, Bill Blair, said he's mandated RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to lead the force in a way that supports nation-to-nation reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

"We are aware of the request made by the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs earlier today and are hopeful that the parties can come together in the near future to discuss how to resolve this issue," Blair said in a statement.

The RCMP said in a statement that Lucki fully backs Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan, the commanding officer in B.C., who is "well-positioned" as the RCMP decision maker in the matter.

Coastal GasLink, which is building the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to the LNG Canada facility under construction in Kitimat, halted construction work in the area on Tuesday and issued a statement calling for negotiations.

"While Coastal GasLink is restarting work generally across the right-of-way, we believe that dialogue is preferable to confrontation and will delay re-mobilization near Workforce Accommodation site 9A while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible," the company posted on its website.

The company also released aerial photos that show numerous trees cut down across a forest service road, blocking crews from getting to the remote area.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline is a critical component of the $40-billion LNG Canada project in Kitimat that has been endorsed, publicly championed and enticed into construction with $6 billion in tax breaks by the B.C. NDP government of Premier John Horgan. Last year, Horgan said the project had done everything correctly by achieving benefit sharing agreements with all 20 elected First Nations band councils along the pipeline route, and had the full backing of the government.

However, while the Wet'suwet'en elected council supports the pipeline, the nation's hereditary chiefs do not. A blockade last January resulted in the RCMP arresting 14 protesters and sparked international headlines. The B.C. Supreme Court backed another injunction to clear the site last month.

"There has been no free prior and informed consent," said Na'moks.

"I must remind people British Columbia is touting itself as being the first province in Canada to implement and legislate the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and thus far they've done nothing to the Wet'suwet'en to prove to us that they are willing to do it. If they are allowing the RCMP and private security forces to come in, to force their way onto our territories, that is not UNDRIP."

B.C.'s business community doesn't expect the government to intervene directly, but it would help the confidence of international investors to see a strong show of public support from Horgan, especially since it's a project he's courted, said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the B.C. Business Council.

"Statements of support for industrial and infrastructure investment projects that have gotten all the approvals and are being advanced by responsible corporate citizens, I think it's helpful the province stands behind those," said Finlayson.

Opposition Liberal MLA Jas Johal, who worked for the B.C. LNG Alliance from 2014 to 2016, said the province has a responsibility to intervene.

"This natural gas pipeline not only provides benefits to all communities along the route, they open up B.C. resources to nearly 4.5 billion Asian consumers," said Johal.

"This pipeline is in the national interest, and should not be held up by fringe groups. Government has a fundamental obligation to uphold the rule of law. For the NDP to hide behind a court ruling is just cowardly."

But former NDP cabinet minister Moe Sihota, now a lobbyist for the Woodfibre LNG project, said the Horgan government has made the right call to stay out of the Wet'suwet'en situation.

"Sometimes the worst thing a government can do is speak out prematurely because it may aggravate a delicate situation," he said.

"The government has a pretty good track record in terms of being both respectful and patient and I do not think that the industry it taking government's position to mean they lack confidence or don't support the industry."

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