SMITHERS, B.C. — A Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief told a crowd of First Nation leaders gathered in Smithers, B.C., that no elected band council or Crown authority has jurisdiction over the land.
Chief Na’Moks said agreements signed by pipeline builder Coastal GasLink are illegitimate and the support shown by those gathered, and by many people around the world, proves the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders do not stand alone.
“Our rights to those lands have never been extinguished,” Na’Moks said during the gathering on Wednesday.
A march along part of Highway 16, which cuts through the Wet’suwet’en territory and is also known as the Highway of Tears, was scheduled to follow the rally.
Chiefs and elected council members from several B.C. First Nations, including Haida, Gitxsan and Babine Lake, stepped up to share their support and stories of resistance against industry during the gathering.
Wayne Christian of the Secwepemc nation told the crowd that “legislative genocide” had been waged against Indigenous Peoples for generations.
Several leaders spoke about conflicts they have had with industry and cases where the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have shown them support that they now want to return.
Harvey Humchitt, a hereditary chief with the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, where a tug ran aground spilling diesel and lubricants into the waters, said it only takes one incident to cause devastation.
The Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline would run through the Wet’suwet’en territory to LNG Canada’s $40-billion export facility in Kitimat, B.C.
The company says it has signed agreements with the elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the route.
However many who oppose the pipeline says the company has authority without consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
The hereditary chiefs say elected bands administer the reserves while they have authority over 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory.
Ayla Brown, an elected councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation, said divisions between elected councils and hereditary leaders has been overstated.
“We’re here to say we stand with you,” she said. “There is no division here.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the hereditary system must be protected.
He said images of the RCMP arresting 14 people at a blockade of the pipeline last week have spread across the world.
“We know that small candle of flame that you had at the at the checkpoint has grown into a prairie fire across the country and the world,” he said.
Molly Wickham, a member of the Gidimt’en clan within the Wet’suwet’en nation who was arrested when RCMP enforced a court injunction and dismantled the checkpoint, said she never doubted the righteousness of what she was doing.
“I witnessed excessive force against Indigenous people on our lands,” she said.
The RCMP said it was launching a review of officers’ actions during the arrests, but police have said they’ve found no initial evidence of misconduct.
Wickham asked anyone who held the checkpoint with her to stand up and about half a dozen in the crowd stood with their in the air.
She said she and others will continue to defend the land.
“This fight is not over,” Wickham said.