The Wet’suwet’en Question.

I’m no expert on this issue, but I have enough experience as a sociology and anthropology teacher and researcher to know a few things that could be of interest.

First, as a number of Indigenous writers have pointed out, the tensions between elected tribal and band councils and hereditary leadership is often palpable. Some of my Kwakwaka’wakw acquaintances years ago discussed the tensions in Alert Bay (specifically) between the elected councils and the hereditary chiefs. It’s my belief that the situation is much the same today and in my opinion is squarely the responsibility of the Federal Government’s paranoia regarding Indigenous peoples.

In fact, the Federal Indian Act of 1876 laid out a new way of governance for First Nations. They were no longer to be led by hereditary leaders. They were now obliged to establish elected band councils, a process overseen by the ubiquitous Indian Agent in a highly paternalistic relationship with First Nations peoples. Thus, band and tribal councils are creatures of the federal government and are funded by the government with the underlying threat that funds could be in jeopardy if government policy was not followed. Besides, First Nations had to become democratic, now didn’t they? No more of this hereditary leadership stuff!

My intent here is not to suggest that all band and tribal council members are toadies and meek adherents to government objectives. Some are, there’s no doubt about that, but many are clearly dedicated to their members and are honest and hard-working. That said, the tribal and band council structure is still a creation of the federal government and that has repercussions impossible to ignore.

It’s been widely reported that the elected councils in the Wet’suwet’en territory are at odds with hereditary chiefs. That seems clear from an industry website that posts the names of the 20 band councils who support the TransCanada pipeline. That list includes the Wet’suwet’en and Witset First Nations. The Hereditary Chiefs, according to the BC Treaty Commission, are at Stage 4 treaty negotiations at the moment. They write on their website that “Our office is governed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs residing throughout the traditional territories. The Chiefs meet at least monthly and often weekly to address specific issues that management needs direction for. Meetings are held throughout the territories in various locations.”

First Nations in BC have been placed between a rock and a hard place by the paternalistic and racist federal government for the last 140 years. The government has done everything it can to tear First Nations communities apart, marginalizing them and taking their land. It has largely been successful in doing that. The current federal government, rhetoric aside, seems bent on the same course of action set decades ago by its predecessors. However, there are First Nations who are not ready to lie still and take it. They are fighting an uphill battle because it seems that the government’s support for private business entreprise trumps all relations with the hereditary leadership of First Nations all over this province every time. Moreover, First Nations themselves have to deal with the divisions within their own ranks while resisting bribes and threats. It’s not an easy situation to be in.

The RCMP

Some would say that the RCMP are just doing their job in enforcing an injunction granted by the courts in favour of TransCanada’s Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Others including the AFN and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs have denounced the RCMP tactics. The federal and provincial governments have argued that they are taking an ‘arms-length’ approach to the BC Supreme Court injunction and that the parties involved need to settle their issues responsibly and peacefully. That’s disingenuous in my mind.

What I find particularly troublesome about the RCMP presence is its militarized aspect. The members attending are dressed in military garb, not an inducement to peaceful settlement of this issue. Put your regular uniforms on people. Nobody in the encampments is about to shoot you.

Government Involvement

Scott Fraser is my MLA and at this moment I’m not impressed with what he or his government is doing. He and his government must take a leadership role in this situation. The battle for the Bulkley Valley is not one between equal combatants. I don’t know what the answer is, but I would like to see my MLA engaged publicly. Is there a solution to this issue? Do the First Nations have to again give up more of their traditional lifestyle? If so, tell them that, to their faces.