VICTORIA, B.C. – Canadians are getting a crash course on the differences between non-elected hereditary chiefs and band councils elected by First Nations as RCMP arrests at a blockade in northern British Columbia launched pipeline protests across the country this week.
“The question of who represents Indigenous people is a thorny one,” said Val Napoleon, director of the Indigenous law research unit at the University of Victoria. “Just saying this system is good and that system is not, isn’t helpful. Indigenous legal traditions have to be part of the relationship with Canada.”
Fourteen people were arrested Monday on the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Coastal GasLink wants to build a natural gas pipeline through the territory and says it has signed agreements with the elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the path, including the Wet’suwet’en.
The Wet’suwet’en conflict highlights the machinations of Indigenous political and legal systems, where both the elected council and hereditary chiefs speak for their communities, Napoleon said in an interview on Wednesday. The council supports the pipeline project, but a family group of hereditary chiefs has opposed the project for years.
Napoleon said the governments and companies negotiating with First Nations on everything from treaties to resource development must find ways to include and accept differing Indigenous governance and legal structures as part of their agreements.
“What that doesn’t mean is backing Indigenous people into a corner so they don’t have space to think or to disagree, which is kind of happening now,” she said.
B.C. government officials said the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief structure consists of five clans and 13 houses.
The Unist’ot’en, a house group within the five clans, set up a pipeline protest camp near Houston, B.C., almost a decade ago. The arrests Monday were at a checkpoint set up by the Gidimt’en, who are one of the five Wet’suwet’en clans.
Premier John Horgan said he visited the Unist’ot’en camp in August to discuss the pipeline but the talks failed.
He said there is no set formula for negotiating agreements with Indigenous groups in B.C., where there are barely two dozen treaties among more than 200 First Nations.
“It’s the responsibilities of the two orders of government to figure that out,” he said. “We do that by working in consultations with band councils and hereditary leadership. I would love to be able to say to you it’s really simple, but it’s not.”
Napoleon said political relationships for Indigenous people involve more than one level of government.
“You can’t take the social, political and economic life of communities and simply say these people represent the hereditary system and these people represent the band council system,” she said.
Grand Chief Ed John said there are clear divisions between hereditary chiefs and elected band councils.
“The chiefs, they are the people who take care of the land. They watch over the land,” said John, a top executive with the First Nations Summit, one of B.C.’s largest Indigenous organizations. “They are the stewards of the land.”
Elected band councils are largely viewed as administrators of government policy, he said.