HOUSTON, B.C. — The arrest of 14 people who oppose a pipeline on the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia brought back difficult memories for Alexander Joseph.
Sitting by a fire Wednesday outside a police roadblock near Houston, B.C., Joseph said the RCMP actions felt personal to him.
“I come from residential (school), I come from the ’60s Scoop,” said Joseph, 61. “It feels like the same thing is happening over and over again. The RCMP and the government coming in, taking away us, from our own culture, our own nature. And that’s not right.”
The police roadblock stopped access to a logging road that leads to a gate erected years ago by the Unist’ot’en house group, which is part of one of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
On Monday, 14 people were arrested after the Mounties took apart a different gate that blocked access to an area where Coastal GasLink wants to build a natural gas pipeline.
Joseph is a member of the Lake Babine First Nation more than 100 kilometres away, but he said he wants to show solidarity with other Indigenous people who feel threatened on their land.
“I’ve got so much anger right now, I want to stay here until this is resolved in a positive way,” Joseph said.
Monday’s arrests were made as the RCMP enforced a court injunction against members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who oppose the pipeline by preventing access to the area where the pipeline is planned.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline would run through the Wet’suwet’en territory to Kitimat, B.C., where LNG Canada is building a $40-billion export facility.
TC Energy, formerly TransCanada Corp., says it has signed agreements with the elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the path, including the Wet’suwet’en.
However, members of the First Nation opposing the pipeline say the company failed to get consent from its five house chiefs, who are hereditary rather than elected. They argue the elected council only has jurisdiction over the reserve, which is a much smaller area than the 22,000 square kilometres that comprise the Wet’suwet’ens traditional territory.
Premier John Horgan said when plans for the LNG export facility were announced in October the B.C. government concluded all the conditions for the project to proceed had been met.
“All nations, from wellhead to waterline, have signed impact benefit agreements,” he told a news conference in Victoria. “We were, of course, mindful of the challenges at the Unist’ot’en camp. But we were in dialogue and continue to be open for dialogue for hereditary leadership in that community.”
Horgan said he spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the impasse on Tuesday night.
“He understands, the federal government understands, that British Columbia is unique in Canada. We have unceded territory in every corner of the province. We have court ruling after court ruling that has affirmed we need to find a better way forward.”
Horgan said there are jurisdictional challenges facing B.C. that are different in every circumstance when it comes to aboriginal land claims and rights.
“I know people would prefer to have, what’s the answer, yes or no, but there isn’t one,” he added.
New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, who represents the area, said the conflict has been developing for years — in part because of a failure to recognize the nuances between elected and hereditary Indigenous governments.
He said Wet’suwet’en band councils have authority over reserves and services, while hereditary chiefs control activities on their traditional territories.
“This is the clash of two forms of government,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Cullen believes the hereditary leadership is looking for guidance from the federal government and expects Ottawa to recognize and accommodate their rights and title.
“There is a whole series of Supreme Court (of Canada) decisions that say if there are established rights and title-holders, if you are going to infringe on those rights, then you have to justify and accommodate for it,” he said.
Trudeau was visiting Kamloops on Wednesday and highlighted the benefits of the LNG export facility in a speech at a Liberal fundraiser.
“We moved forward on the LNG Canada project, which is the largest private sector investment in Canada’s history, $40 billion, which is going to produce Canadian LNG that will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment,” he said.
— With files from Laura Kane in Kamloops, B.C.
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Amy Smart, The Canadian Press