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Editorial: First Nations communities need to figure out who’s in charge


Signs at a protest camp at Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northwestern B.C.


HO / THE CANADIAN PRESS

What a mess.

How else to describe the situation near Houston involving a dispute between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose construction of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory that has been approved by their elected band council and the other 19 native communities along the pipeline route. Fourteen pipeline protesters were arrested Monday by the RCMP for blocking access to an area within the Wet’suwet’en territory where Coastal GasLink wants to build the pipeline that will move gas to LNG Canada’s $40-billion gas export facility in Kitimat.

The dispute raises serious questions about who actually represents Indigenous communities — unelected hereditary chiefs or elected band councils — particularly when it comes to signing agreements with companies and non-native governments.

Coastal GasLink spent years carefully and respectfully explaining the project to First Nations along the pipeline route, including negotiating deals worth more than $600 million in employment and community benefits for the bands for allowing the pipeline to cross their lands.

The LNG project — the largest private investment in B.C. history backed by the federal and provincial governments — is worth an estimated $23 billion in taxes and fees to government over the next two decades.

So how is it that at the eleventh hour, a minority of hereditary chiefs from one nation can claim a veto over such an important project? Is that fair or reasonable?

While most Canadians would likely say no, the courts have in fact long recognized hereditary chiefs’ jurisdiction to make decision about their traditional territories. The Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in decisions clearly establish that Aboriginal title exists in B.C. and that non-native governments must acquire informed consent from native communities before approving activities within their territories.

However, none of that likely means that any one group, even hereditary chiefs, holds a veto over projects — especially complex ones crossing multiple territories, approved by signed deals and supported by a majority of other First Nations. If that were the case, it’s hard to imagine any large resource project getting launched, let alone completed, in B.C. in the future. The provincial economy would struggle if investors concluded that putting money into B.C. projects were too risky.

Canada is in a reconciliation process with Indigenous peoples, but reconciliation is about finding ways to work together. Given the confusion about the LNG pipeline, and for the sake of our economic growth going forward, it’s apparent that First Nations need to clearly define governance for their communities so that when they interact with other Canadians, governments and businesses, they speak with one, unified voice.


Editorials are unsigned opinion pieces representing the views of The Vancouver Sun editorial board, which is made up of senior editors. The editorial pages editor is Gordon Clark, who can be reached at gclark@postmedia.com.

Letters to the editor should be sent to sunletters@vancouversun.com.

If you have a tip about a story, please email vantips@postmedia.comCLICK HERE to report a typo.


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