The following is a guest column by Chief Dan George of the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band) and chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance. It ran in The Vancouver Sun on December 15, 2018.
Reaction to the Coastal GasLink application for a court injunction to lift the blockade of a public bridge in Wet’suwet’en territory highlights two major issues that First Nations must resolve.
The first is, “who speaks for Indigenous people?” The other is, “how will we close the gap between our low standard of living and that of most non-Indigenous Canadians?”
The first question reflects a tension between our traditional governing systems and more contemporary democratic systems.
The traditional government of the Wet’suwet’en people includes 13 hereditary chiefs publicly represented by a board of seven hereditary chiefs. This central “Office of the Wet’suwet’en” claimed in recent statements that the hereditary chiefs “condemn ongoing attempts by the governments of British Columbia and Canada to force unwanted industrial projects onto Wet’suwet’en traditional territories (Yin’tah) by ignoring the jurisdiction and title of the Wet’suwet’en people as represented by the Hereditary Chiefs.”
This plays nicely into the stereotypes, but it is misleading.
In fact, there are hereditary chiefs who support the CGL natural-gas pipeline and the benefits it will bring to First Nations people. One of these is Helen Michelle, who is also an elected band councillor of the Skin Tyee band, a small First Nation that is a member of the larger Wet’suwet’en Nation.
She supports the pipeline development and rejects the notion that the hereditary chiefs are the only representatives of the Wet’suwet’en people.
In her capacity as an elected representative, she and the other band councillors negotiated an agreement with CGL after working carefully through the issues with the Skin Tyee band members and the hereditary chiefs.
In her words: “It was difficult for us, but we supported CGL. We discussed it thoroughly and we struggled with it. We agreed upon it for our future generations. No other chiefs speak for us or our territory. We speak for ourselves. We speak for our territory.”
That is the kind of political courage it takes to answer the second question.
CGL has awarded $620 million in contract work to Indigenous businesses for right-of-way clearing, first aid, security and camp management needs, with another $400 million anticipated in contract and employment opportunities for Indigenous and local B.C. communities during pipeline construction.
Some of these benefits are already flowing, including training and employment opportunities, contracting opportunities and financial payments to advance heritage, cultural and traditional language priorities deemed important by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and Wet’suwet’en community leaders.
Helen Michelle and Skin Tyee are not alone. Other First Nations such as the Haisla and Kitsumkalum have declared their support for LNG. At least 20 First Nations have signed project benefit agreements and a First Nations LNG Alliance has been formed to share information about the potential impacts and benefits of LNG development in our province.
It is time for First Nations governing authorities to work together for the benefit of the members. “No” is no longer the only answer. Economic reconciliation is the better way to protect and grow our communities into the future.
Dan George is elected chief of the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band) and chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance.
The column as it appeared in The Vancouver Sun