University students and others claiming to support Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs stage a protest camp against the Coastal Gaslink pipeline at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 20, 2020. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Elected Wet’suwet’en chief blasts closed-door land title deal

Hereditary chiefs have been ‘wined and dined’ for 23 years

The land title agreement signed by federal and provincial officials in a “virtual” ceremony in Smithers May 14 is invalid and should be done in court, an elected chief of the Wet’suwet’en community at New Hazelton says.

Cynthia Joseph, Chief Councillor of the Hagwilget First Nation, says the memorandum of understanding between Ottawa, the province and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs was only shared with her community members May 9 in a Zoom video conference. The community consultation has not been done and the agreement should not go ahead, she said.

Joseph said the terms of the memorandum, obtained by Black Press and published May 7, should be filed in B.C. Supreme Court, not in a virtual ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That ceremony took place May 14, with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser representing the Crown.

The agreement was hastily reached by federal and provincial officials as railway and roadblocks spread from northwest B.C. across the country, and the B.C. legislature was besieged by self-proclaimed supporters of the Wet’suwet’en in early February.

“The disconnect between the hereditary chiefs and the Wet’suwet’en people, in my view, arises as a direct result of the comfortable mess that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have in negotiating treaty deals behind closed doors for 23 years, with no accountability, and being wined and dined by the federal government, provincial government and all of the industries,” Joseph said in a phone interview from New Hazelton May 13.

“The lack of integrity that we see in operation now is the result of signing bonuses of some hereditary chiefs having the misconception that they have the authority to make a unilateral decision on behalf of the clan membership who they have not consulted.”

EXCLUSIVE: A first look at the Wet’suwet’en land memorandum

RELATED: Elected chiefs call for withdrawal of ‘premature’ deal

Joseph said she has sent a letter to Bennett and Fraser calling for a similar agreement to be filed in court. Hagwilget supports the hereditary land system, and is the only Wet’suwet’en community that has not signed a benefits agreement for the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which they alone among Wet’suwet’en elected councils oppose.

“Hagwilget first saw a copy of the MOU at approximately 11:10 Friday, May 9, when all the elected band councils and the office of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs had a meeting via Zoom,” Joseph said. “We advised all of the participants that our attendance on the call could not be construed as a consultation process.”

Wet’suwet’en hereditary rights and title were first established in 1997, in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa.

“It is my understanding that the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case is currently in general abeyance, pending these unfruitful and waste-of-time treaty negotiations that they have been involved in for the past 22 years on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en,” Joseph said. “So bringing back the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa, the federal government and B.C. then file a declaration affirming the Wet’suwet’en aboriginal rights and title to its traditional territory. It’s a simple legal procedure, and this step is seen as a last step in the current MOU as drafted.”


@tomfletcherbc
tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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