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With members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation blockading a pipeline project on their traditional lands, Na’moks was standing by a crackling campfire, next to an RCMP checkpoint, drawing in the snow with his right boot.

The hereditary chief of the Tsayu clan made a small circle to represent the authority of elected band councils within reserves. Outside that circle, he explained, is where Wet’suwet’en clans wield power over a vast territory.

“We are hereditary chiefs," he said, “and we have control of this land.”

The temporary checkpoint was set up earlier this week in a remote area of the B.C. Interior as things got tense, with RCMP officers arresting 14 protesters on Monday at a blockade erected last month along a logging road.

The road leads to the Unist’ot’en camp on the Morice River bridge, where hereditary leaders were preventing construction workers from TransCanada Corp.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline project from passing. By Friday, the barriers were coming down, after the protesters agreed to comply with an interim court injunction to grant workers temporary access to the area. The way forward for the project, however, remains uncertain.

The pipeline is a vital piece of infrastructure for the launch of British Columbia’s liquefied-natural-gas sector, supplying the planned $40-billion LNG Canada project – the largest private investment in the province’s history. Almost a third of the proposed pipeline route crosses the territory to which the Wet’suwet’en maintain aboriginal rights and title.

Coastal GasLink has signed deals with First Nations all along the 670-kilometre route, including the elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en, who say the agreements will deliver economic benefits to their communities.

For both the provincial and federal governments – which have made solemn commitments to respect Indigenous rights and title – the agreements meant the company had secured sufficient consent for the project.

But who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people? Under Canadian law, the elected chiefs have authority over the reserves created by the Crown. But authority over the 22,000 square kilometres of traditional Wet’suwet’en territory involves a matrilineal system of 13 unique houses, five clans and 38 house territories. Under that system, Na’moks, who belongs to the Beaver house under the Tsayu clan, is one of the hereditary leaders obligated to manage how those lands and resources are used.

The project has sown deep divisions and put a spotlight on the conflict between those two systems of leadership – one ancient, passed down through oral tradition, the other established and codified by federal law. It has demonstrated the messy but necessary processes resource companies and governments must confront when pursuing projects in British Columbia. And it has forced Indigenous groups to face the tensions within their own communities – the painful trade-offs between economic development and ancient obligations of land stewardship.

Chief Jackie Thomas, the elected chief of the Saik’uz First Nation, said she worked hard on behalf of her community to secure a deal and the benefits that will come as a result of construction.

“We went through this long process in our community and we ensured that our concerns and worries were resolved. We had naysayers – they exist in all communities – but we sorted it out. I personally worked hard for this and I was happy to see a final investment decision reached.”

But she said the politicians and the company would have been wiser to deal directly with the hereditary chiefs as well.

“It would help if Premier [John] Horgan and Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau would go to the feast house at Wet’suwet’en, talk to the hereditary chiefs and give some serious attention to this matter," she said. "Let’s dedicate some time and resource to see this through.”

Mr. […]

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