• Allison Baker

FACT CHECK: Are Camps Blocking Access to Wet’suwet’en Territory “Anti-democratic”?

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

FALSE. Under both Wet’suwet’en and Canadian law, the territory is governed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The camps, set up with the support of the chiefs, are the result of an ongoing dispute over who has control of unceded territory.

The Unist’ot’en, a clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, have been preventing oil-and-gas companies from launching development projects on their land for the past decade, building a cabin, a pit house, a bunkhouse, and a healing centre to obstruct the path of several proposed pipelines in British Columbia. A gated checkpoint at the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River) entrance to Unist’ot’ten Yin’tah (how the Wet’suwet’en refer to their traditional territory) blocks an access bridge, preventing outsiders, including pipeline workers, from accessing the land without permission.

Last November, Coastal Gaslink—a subsidiary of TransCanada Corporation (now TC Energy)—filed an injunction to cross the barrier and begin construction on a natural-gas pipeline, part of which would run through Unist’ot’ten Yin’tah. In December, a judge from the provincial supreme court ordered that the gates be removed to allow the pipeline’s construction.

But the checkpoint blocking access remained in place into early 2019, with the support of the nation’s hereditary chiefs. The neighbouring Gidimt’en clan also erected a second checkpoint along the forest road leading to the bridge across the Wedzin Kwa—a show of support, according to a post on the Unist’ot’en camp website, for the efforts of the Unist’ot’en people.

Last week, on an episode of “The Gunn Show” for the Rebel—a conservative website with a right-wing bias, according to Media Bias/Fact Check—Sheila Gunn Reid argued that “blockades” set up by the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans were “anti-democratic.” She referred to TransCanada’s announcement, in September, that some band councils in the region—including that of the Wet’suwet’en Nation—had signed an agreement to allow construction through their territories.

Gunn’s assertion that the blockades are “anti-democratic” is false and shows a misunderstanding of the governance structure of First Nations in British Columbia and their relationship to the federal government. An action is “anti-democratic” if it threatens democracy or stands fundamentally against it (not to be confused with “undemocratic,” meaning something is not democratic)—a definition that does not apply to the situation unfolding on Unist’ot’en Yin’tah.

As The Tyee reports, Wet’suwe’ten territory remains unceded, and its people have not signed a treaty. As outlined in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and later in Section 25 of the Constitution Act, this means that the land does not belong to the Crown—nor is it governed by the federal government. Band councils are bodies put in place by the Indian Act for the explicit purpose of ensuring that reserves adhere to the act—which means they have authority over only the reserve and not the larger territory. Instead, Wet’suwe’ten traditional territory belongs to the nation and is governed by the nation’s leaders.

The band councils that signed the agreement with TransCanada do not have jurisdiction over all Wet’suwet’en ancestral territory; under Wet’suwet’en law, the land is governed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who inherited the title and responsibility to protect their community’s people, land, and culture. According to many people’s understanding of the law, the hereditary chiefs are the only people who can sanction development on the Wet’suwet’en Yin’tah. They have consistently asserted their opposition to all pipelines.

The 1997 ruling of the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, a land-title action brought forth by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations, concluded that British Columbia’s provincial government has no right to “extinguish peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories.” It clarified that the Wet’suwet’en had not given up title to 22,000 square kilometres of land and acknowledged that the hereditary chiefs had authority over the territory.

As reported by the Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly “encouraged First Nations to pursue their own self-government models.” Yet, as Gunn Reid’s misunderstanding of the situation shows, some self-governance systems are not well understood by external agents who interact with First Nations. For example, TransCanada and Coastal Gaslink conferred with nation band councils—not with hereditary chiefs.

Two of the fundamental freedoms on which Canada’s constitution is based are freedom of expression and freedom to peaceful assembly. There is nothing antidemocratic in the Unist’ot’en people’s decision to protest construction on their ancestral lands.