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KNOX – No one voice can speak for the Wet’suwet’en people

TUESDAY MORNING, a group that included a handful of old white guys who looked, well, kind of like me demonstrated outside the Langford home of Premier John Horgan.

In doing so they invoked the name of the Wet’suwet’en, to which the obvious question is: Which ones?

For despite the best efforts of outsiders who would weaponize the Wet’suwet’en for their own purposes, it has become clear that deep divisions exist within that community. The Wet’suwet’en themselves don’t speak with one voice, so how can anyone else presume to stand on behalf of them all?

This applies to both sides of the tug-of-war, those who drag out Indigenous people to justify the gas line they want to see built, and those who do so in opposition. To be blunt, that’s cherry-picking. That’s selectively using Indigenous people as human shields to advance another agenda: climate change, corporate profit, a general-purpose rage against the machine, whatever. They should make a Heritage Minute: paternalism, a Canadian tradition.

It doesn’t help that the narrative has been over-simplified by those on either side and inflamed by social media indignation. To accept that the 20 elected councils along the gas-project route gave the project all the blessing it needs is to ignore the role of the five hereditary chiefs whose opposition has led to the current wave of cross-Canada protests.

Yet to argue that elected councils have no legitimacy because they are a construct of the Indian Act, or that they have no say beyond the border of reserves, is a conveniently dismissive approach that ignores the feelings of those who did the electing.

People seeking a deeper understanding of the divisions could do worse than turning to APTN News, which, not surprisingly, offers nuanced perspectives not found in other media or espoused by those who shout loudest.

Among them are arguments advanced by Wet’suwet’en supporters of the pipeline: “Along with revenue from Impact Benefits Agreements and Provincial Pipeline Agreements, Indigenous businesses will benefit from $620 million in contract work for the project’s right-of-way clearing, medical, security and camp management needs. There is another $400 million in additional contract and employment opportunities for Indigenous and local B.C. communities during pipeline construction.”

The implicit message is that when you have spent 150 years on the outside looking in, and finally have a shot at sharing the kind of prosperity enjoyed by others, it’s frustrating to have that threatened by outsiders who were reared in the kind of comfort you were denied.

The counter-argument is that the hereditary chiefs are charged with responsibility for protecting the land, and that can’t simply be ignored — a position that dovetails nicely with that of those whose primary concern is the environment in general and climate change in particular.

The thing is, what happens when such interests clash? Environmental groups already squirm trying to reconcile opposition to logging with Indigenous involvement in Vancouver Island’s forest industry. Several Indigenous groups have expressed interest in investing in another pipeline project, the Trans Mountain expansion.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced last week that up to 129 First Nations communities will be consulted in the next few weeks to ensure they have a shot at “meaningful economic participation” in Trans Mountain, which the federal government purchased from the private sector in 2018.

“This next step will be focused on different models of economic participation such as equity-based or revenue-sharing options and will seek to build momentum towards a widely acceptable option for the groups that we’re consulting with,” The Canadian Press quoted Morneau as saying.

“We’ll also explore whether the participating communities are willing to work together, either through an existing entity or a new one.”

The hearts and minds tug-of-war continued Tuesday when included among the provincial budget documents was an eight-page backgrounder titled Building the Foundations of Reconciliation. It was more or less a summary of existing initiatives, but included one key phrase: “Indigenous people have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands, territories and resources.” What wasn’t clear was who will speak on behalf of Indigenous people, or how differences between and within Indigenous bodies get worked out.

That’s a question more important to some than others. Long after the well-meaning, passionate student protesters have moved on with their lives, long after the ideologues have embarked on the next chapter of their class war, long after the gas companies have made their billions and long after the politicians have turned their focus to the next crisis, the Wet’suwet’en will be left to figure out how to live with one another, how to answer the tricky questions.

They don’t need the advice of you, me, or a bunch of non-Wet’suwet’en blocking the premier’s driveway in their name.

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.

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ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

2 Comments on KNOX – No one voice can speak for the Wet’suwet’en people

  1. Bill Hadgkiss // February 23, 2020 at 9:09 PM // Reply

    After you find and then see that both TMX and BC LNG are fiscally irresponsible, follow the money….. you notice this needle #26 (CAPITALS below) in the UNDRIP haystack.     
    It appears that our governments should read what they have been printing lately.  
    From near end of  #5 UNDRIP in Tyee https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/02/14/Wetsuweten-Crisis-Whose-Rule-Law/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=170220     
    RCMP raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, according to some who occupied the steps of the B.C. legislature recently, appear to directly violate at least one of UNDRIP’s 46 articles.  They point to Article 8 which declares, “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress” for any action “which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources” and any “form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights.”
         Article 18 gives the Wet’suwet’en the right to participate in any decision-making through their own procedures and law.  This has not happened.  Article 26 gives them the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources they possess through ownership, and says the STATE MUST give legal recognition and PROTECT their lands and resources.  None of this has occurred to date, and it doesn’t look like B.C. is even considering it.       
    The RCMP must do an about turn and defend the Wet’suwet’en from Coastal GasLink. 

  2. L Dawne Taylor // February 23, 2020 at 1:16 PM // Reply

    Thank you Jack. I agree wholeheartedly. Surely the Wet’suen’ten have a process for resolving conflicts among themselves. The rest of us should just step back and let that indigenous nation sort out their own issues and priorities. They may never agree, just as there are always disputes and differences of opinion in most communities. I only hope the feds, BC govt and CoastalGas Link will be patient enough to give the Wet’suen’ten time to discuss and hopefully resolve this themselves. Unfortunately it might take years – and profit doesn’t have much patience!

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