Hereditary chiefs say they will protect territory in pipeline dispute

SMITHERS, B.C. — On the first anniversary of the RCMP’s enforcement of an injunction against opponents of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia, First Nation hereditary chiefs said the company behind the project is not welcome on their traditional territory.

Chief Na’moks said Tuesday there will be no access to the territory without the consent of the chiefs, who are demanding the province stop construction of the pipeline and that the RCMP withdraw from their land.

“If they wish to force their way on, that is not our choice, that is theirs,” Na’moks told a news conference.

“We are peaceful but we will protect our territory.”

Na’moks said Coastal GasLink is not allowed on the First Nation’s 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory and its leadership is unwilling to meet with the company.

Coastal GasLink has received approval from the provincial government to build a 670-kilometre pipeline from northeastern B.C. to LNG Canada’s $40-billion export terminal in Kitimat. The company signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along the route, but the hereditary chiefs say the project doesn’t have authority without their consent as well.

On Dec. 31, the B.C. Supreme Court granted another interim injunction to the company against members of the First Nation and supporters who oppose the pipeline.

In an interview, Na’moks said relations haven’t improved since 14 people were arrested by police and a checkpoint built on the road leading to a work site was dismantled on Jan. 7, 2019.

The hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice to the company on the weekend. Na’moks said trees were felled across the road leading to the work site for the safety of local residents.

Coastal GasLink declined an interview request but in a statement it said work could be delayed in an area at the centre of the dispute, but it is ready to resume construction. It added that it is willing to “discuss issues of importance” with the chiefs.

The company is resuming work generally across the pipeline right-of-way, but it believes “dialogue is preferable to confrontation” and will delay workers returning to the area while a negotiated resolution remains possible, it said.

Na’moks declined the offer.

“If there are going to be meetings, it will be between the decision-makers,” he said, adding that includes the provincial and federal governments, as well as the federal RCMP commissioner, but not local governments or the company.

As of Tuesday, he said the First Nation had received no response from any level of government, nor from the RCMP’s leadership.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office said in a statement the federal government is aware of the hereditary chiefs’ request and it is “hopeful that the parties can come together in the near future to discuss how to resolve this issue.”

The Mounties also acknowledged the chiefs’ request for RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to get involved, but said she supports Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan, who as the force’s commanding officer in B.C. “is well-positioned as our decision-maker in these matters.”

“Deputy Commissioner Strachan, along with her senior management team, have been actively engaged in facilitating a discussion with all the stakeholders,” the RCMP said in a statement. “That remains our utmost priority at this time and are optimistic that a meeting can take place immediately between the various stakeholders involved to find common ground and a peaceful resolution.”

It says police will continue to patrol the Morice River Forest Service Road in the area ”to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Na’moks said the province must address the issue of consent before the hereditary chiefs grant any access to the land.

The provincial Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources did not directly address the demands made by the chiefs, but in a statement it noted that the court has affirmed the company is “lawfully permitted to conduct their work.”

“We encourage representatives to engage with the company to achieve a resolution that respects the court’s decision and ensures safety for all,” it said.

On Tuesday, the hereditary chiefs said they were acting in accordance with their laws on behalf of the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation.

“The province has proclaimed they will implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes free, prior and informed consent, but has failed to intervene in this issue,” the chiefs said in a statement.

— With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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