Common understanding in hard conversations

Understanding how to engage with those who disagree is a skill that takes practice and patience. I had plenty of practice during the federal election, but when it comes to helping people understand the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, it’s a completely different experience. The conversation has an added layer of racial discrimination, fear about the future of our economy and unfamiliarity with Indigenous governance systems. I’m no expert, and I won’t pretend to be, but I want to discuss how important it is to interact respectfully with those who disagree. 

I have learned to exercise patience through practice, having been continuously bombarded with the opinions of those who believe the Wet’suwet’en people should be arrested. What is there to do but write about it? I am very aware that writing a piece about the Wet’suwet’en may only bring more opposition to the comment section, but I am prepared to handle the emotional labour - the Wet’suwet’en people have endured much worse. I am compelled, using my platform and privilege, to do my best at sharing my understanding and opening respectful dialogues. 

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TC Energy was required by law to consult with all stakeholders along the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and in 2013, they and the province signed benefit agreements with band councils along its path. This is where it gets complicated: elected band councils are not the traditional form of Indigenous governance, but a form imposed unilaterally by the federal government through the Indian Act. Further, elected band councils’ jurisdictions end at the borders of their reserve’s land and do not extend to all of the unceeded, ancestral territories of the nation, where the pipeline crosses.

Currently, there are 20 elected band councils that support the Coastal GasLink project on their territory and five Hereditary Chiefs that oppose. This is far more complicated than comparing numbers. The Supreme Court of Canada case, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, affirmed unextinguished Aboriginal title and entitlement to govern, by Aboriginal laws, over their territories to 35 Gitxan and 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. By considering Indigenous peoples’ constitutional right to self-government, the jurisdictional issues imposed by the Indian Act, and traditional Indigenous laws based in respect, it’s easier to understand how the hereditary chiefs can disagree with the band councils’ decisions. The issue is complicated and legal scholars have debated how to reconcile the rulings of Delgamuukw and current Canadian law for over 20 years. 

Those that disagree with the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters are using many different angles: some attempt to discredit the land protectors on Wet’suwet’en territory by stating not all of the supporters are Indigenous; some are using the age-old line of “I hope they walked there if they are protesting a pipeline”; and others conflate hereditary chiefs to a form of unaccountable monarchy. None of these opinions recognize just how complicated this issue is. I do not share these comments to discredit, but to think critically and understand why people are saying these things in the first place. 

Why do people support this pipeline? The basis of why anyone wants development is security for their family, a value shared between Indigenous and Non-indigenous, alike. The goal of independence and stability is why communities like the Haisla, Gitxsan, and other nations show their support. I completely understand that view and I wish there were more options for financial independence other than investing in oil and gas projects.

How do you talk about these issues when the Wet’suwet’en defending the future of their families are seen as an attack on ours? Well, it’s not easy, but it is necessary. Especially for those of us benefiting from white privilege, it is important for us to educate others about what is happening. These conversations can get heated because of their subtext. Try telling someone that is disrupted by the protests that “you should be more compassionate and look more deeply into a complicated issue” and you are likely to be laughed, or even yelled, at. The best strategy I have found is to try and understand that both sides are concerned about the futures of their families and the health of their communities. This is the common ground where we all must start.


This issue is not as straightforward as some believe, and these tensions are rooted in legitimate and similar fears from both sides. We all must practice being patient and empathetic. We must not allow these conversations to descend into racism or personal attacks; otherwise, there is no chance we will ever live in harmony and continue forward with reconciliation.


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