Hered­i­tary chiefs’ power now seen be­yond ter­ri­tory

Peo­ple al­ways rec­og­nized their role, but now po­lice, politi­cians, in­dus­try ob­serve it

StarMetro Vancouver - - VANCOUVER - DAVID P. BALL Read the full story at thes­­cou­ver

An­to­nia Mills sighed Thurs­day as she re­mem­bered the words of B.C.’S chief jus­tice in a his­tory-shap­ing law­suit 28 years ago.

“No writ­ten lan­guage, no horses or wheeled ve­hi­cles,” chief jus­tice Al­lan Mceach­ern read aloud to a shocked court­room in 1991. “Abo­rig­i­nal life in the ter­ri­tory (be­fore Euro­pean con­tact) was, at best, nasty, brutish and short.”

But as Mills re­calls it, those words were not the most out­ra­geous heard by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitk­san na­tion hered­i­tary chiefs who launched the law­suit against Bri­tish Columbia.

No, most dis­ap­point­ing was the judge’s dec­la­ra­tion that Indige­nous rights “are ex­tin­guish­able at the plea­sure of the sovereign” — be­cause the colo­nial-era Crown had al­ready in­tended to elim­i­nate any rights to the land that “might oth­er­wise have pre­vented it from trans­fer­ring ti­tle to its set­tlers.”

Mills, now 76 and a pro­fes­sor in the Uni­ver­sity of North­ern B.C.’S First Na­tions Stud­ies pro­gram, had worked as an an­thro­pol­o­gist for the Wet’suwet’en since 1985 as they pre­pared their case. Its hered­i­tary lead­ers, and those of its north­ern B.C. neigh­bour the Gitk­san, would even­tu­ally win in Canada’s high­est court in a wa­ter­shed Indige­nous rights rul­ing known as “Del­ga­muukw” after one of the hered­i­tary Gitk­san chiefs.

The im­por­tance of hered­i­tary lead­ers came to the fore­front this week, after heav­ily armed RCMP tac­ti­cal of­fi­cers stormed a Wet’suwet’en bar­ri­cade set up to block work­ers for the planned Coastal Gaslink pipe­line.

Two days after po­lice ar­rested 14 peo­ple there on Mon­day, it was hered­i­tary chiefs who led the RCMP past a sec­ond check­point. It was those hered­i­tary chiefs who helped ne­go­ti­ate a tem­po­rary end to the im­passe. And on Thurs­day, it was the hered­i­tary chiefs from the na­tion’s five tra­di­tional clans with whom Coastal Gaslink ne­go­ti­ated an agree­ment.

But the clash at the bar­ri­cade has led to pub­lic con­fu­sion about the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the hered­i­tary lead­ers and the elected chiefs and coun­cils of the five First Na­tions bands of the Wet’suwet’en, four of which have signed agree­ments with Coastal Gaslink.

Con­fu­sion ap­peared to be shared even at the high­est lev­els.

“The chal­lenge for gov­ern­ments, fed­eral and provin­cial, is de­ter­min­ing how we bring to­gether the his­toric band coun­cil model,” Premier John Hor­gan told re­porters Wed­nes­day, “with the emerg­ing hered­i­tary model that’s very much man­i­fest­ing it­self in Unist’ot’en ter­ri­tory.”

Mills was blunt in her re­ac­tion to the premier’s words: “Hered­i­tary chiefs are ‘emer­gent?’” she ex­claimed. “As if the elected chiefs were the old ones?

“I think some­how he doesn’t un­der­stand that the hered­i­tary chief sys­tem is thou­sands of years old. It’s tra­di­tional and it never ceased.

“It’s been in con­tin­u­ous ex­is­tence but had to go un­der­ground with­out let­ting any­one know be­cause the stupid Cana­dian gov­ern­ment would not ac­cept the First Na­tions’ ways of do­ing things and made it il­le­gal.”

Un­der Canada’s 19th-cen­tury In­dian Act, to­day’s roughly 2,500-mem­ber Wet’suwet’en na­tion is di­vided into five in­de­pen­dent First Na­tions gov­erned by band coun­cils, spread over more than 20 small re­serves.

Coastal Gaslink boasts ben­e­fit agree­ments with every band coun­cil along its planned route; for the 150mem­ber “Wet’suwet’en First Na­tion,” for in­stance, it of­fered $13 mil­lion for its sup­port.

But while that band’s elected coun­cil signed the deal, all five clans in the larger Wet’suwet’en na­tion re­ject it. The clan chiefs say that the First Na­tion’s band coun­cil only has ju­ris­dic­tion over the re­serve, not their en­tire tra­di­tional ter­ri­to­ries.


Wet'suwet'en hered­i­tary Chief Namoks and Chief Madeek, right, lis­ten to RCMP li­ai­son of­fi­cers at a meet­ing at the Unist'ot'en heal­ing lodge on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

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