Until this country is willing to listen to their own Supreme Court and recognize hereditary rights and title, these unresolved issues will continue to end in confrontation. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC) If all the elected First Nations along the pipeline route signed agreements, why were there still protesters?
The above question kept coming up again and again from observers who didn’t quite understand why a blockade was set up at the Unist’ot’en camp in northern B.C., preventing work to proceed on the Coastal GasLink pipeline. A deal was reached Thursday between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the RCMP to allow for pre-construction work, but the question for many still remained.
The short answer is this: there are two kinds of governance structures within Indigenous communities, and industry and government have only paying attention to one.
There’s the system required by the Indian Act — the chief and council — which is based in colonial law and was imposed rather than adopted. It is not universally recognized by Indigenous people.
The other is the hereditary system: a governance model that varies from one nation to the next, where chieftainships, titles and responsibilities are passed down through generations. It is not beyond reproach, and in some cases it may need to be adjusted to reflect the capitalist world of today. But it is our traditional way, it has sophisticated checks and balances, and it has been in use since before Canada claimed sovereignty.
The First Nations along the pipeline route who have signed benefit agreements are the chiefs and councils elected under the Indian Act. All but one of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, until Thursday, were united against this pipeline. The traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en, at the centre of this issue, represents approximately 22,000 square kilometres of land that was never ceded through treaty. (Gary Solilak/CBC) The odds at which these two systems are often placed is not accidental. The authority of chief and council is delegated by the Indian Act and has historically been largely dependent on a federal ministry to deliver services. Canada’s colonial policies of dispossession and cultural repression through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop , the reserve system and much more have created a system of dependency through enforced poverty.
The reliance on federal funding to maintain services makes it incredibly difficult for elected band officials to stand on principle. I don’t mean to detract from their efforts or the sincerity of their leadership, but they are elected to keep services flowing, and the reality is that for them to resist too strongly risks getting nothing at all.
Hereditary leaders are not beholden to the same obligations and are much freer to demand that their inherent rights and title are recognized. This is precisely what happened is the case of Delgamuukw v. The Queen , when 35 Gitxsan and 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs sued the Crown, claiming title over their traditional territories.
In 1997, they won a partial but significant victory in which the Supreme Court of Canada recognized Aboriginal title for the first time. Reserves and traditional territories
It is also important to note the difference between "reserves" and "traditional territories." The distinction is once again illustrated by the Indian Act, which designates reserves as a "tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band." By this definition, reserves are owned by the Crown and make up only a minuscule amount of Canada’s land.
Traditional territories are larger and much more difficult to define. They are the geographic areas that were historically occupied and used by […]
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