As the RCMP arrested some of my extended family members at the Gitdimt’en checkpoint near the Unist’ot’en Camp Monday night I couldn’t help but feel guilt. As a Laksilyu clan member I felt guilt for not being there on the land with them because I live and work in Vancouver. And I felt guilt for my small role in the horrendously flawed community consultation process that eventually led to my elected band council signing an agreement in support of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The divide between our nation’s elected and hereditary leadership has compromised the efforts both sides make to serve our people and unity is needed at this critical moment in Wet'suwet'en history.
For thousands of years the Wet’suwet’en have stewarded our 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory under a matriarchal clan system. We have five clans and 13 house groups within those clans. Each of the 13 house groups have a head hereditary chief whose ancestral name is associated with that house group’s traditional territory and is responsible for protecting the territory for future generations. The elected band council system was introduced under the Indian Act as part of a suite of colonial policies aimed at eradicating traditional governance systems. The band councils are responsible for managing reserve lands, while the hereditary system is what governed the broader traditional territory which is what the pipeline is proposed to cross.
What many fail to understand about the Unist’ot’en Camp is that it is not a protest camp. Nor is it a blockade. It is a reoccupation of traditional territory and an assertion of Aboriginal title and rights to land that have been proven at the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision to never have been extinguished by the Crown. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on CBC Radio Wednesday that the arrest of protesters is not ideal, but that the rule of law must be respected. But what about Anuk Nu’at’en, traditional Wet’suwet’en law? It hasn’t been followed by Canada, the RCMP or even by some of our own people.
I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone but my own experience here. I was 22-years-old in 2014 when I started working for the Moricetown Band, now known as the Witset First Nation. At the time our elected chief and council were engaged in conversations with two natural gas pipeline proponents, Pacific Trails Pipeline and Coastal GasLink. I worked in communications and was a part of a group of community leaders and members who were flown down to Vancouver on numerous occasions and put up in expensive hotels and served fancy steak dinners while meetings about the projects were ongoing.
I was young and naive and I didn’t understand what harm the process was causing our community members who felt like their voice wasn’t being heard. I didn’t think about Anuk Nu’at’en. I didn’t grow up in Wet’suwet’en territory and I am not an expert in our law. But from what I’ve been told a decision of this magnitude should have been made in the feast hall with each of the five clans present. As negotiations went on in boardrooms I didn’t think about the clash between our two governance systems, or the division it was causing within families.
But by the end of my time there I knew. I saw family members disown each other at meetings because they were on opposite sides of the pipeline debate. Some mothers and kids have stopped talking. Brothers and sisters too. I saw land defenders who just want to protect a traditional way of life for future generations called radicals and criminals. And I saw elected chief and council members who just want to create job opportunities for community members living in poverty called greedy sell outs.
To the outside world it seems that the war is the Wet’suwet’en vs. the pipeline. Or Wet’suwet’en vs. Canada. Or Wet’suwet’en vs. the RCMP. And to a certain extent it is. But our biggest war right now is the Wet’suwet’en vs. the Wet’suwet’en. We all take so much pride in the work our ancestors did on the land and in the courts to fight for our right to be Wet’suwet’en people on Wet’suwet’en land today but we can’t agree on how to exercise those rights so we end up compromising them by undermining each other. Is it our fault? No. We’re unlearning how to hate ourselves after generations of colonial attempts at shredding our cultural identities into scattered fragments. But is it our responsibility to come back together as one nation?
The question reminds me of something my great grandfather once said. His name was Johnny David. He held the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief name Mikhlikhlekh and was one of the plaintiffs in the Delgamuukw case. His testimony described Anuk Nu’at’en and helped to prove that our nation has stewarded our territory for thousands of years and have a right to continue doing so. He lived past the age of 115 and in his final years he would often say to those who are hereditary chiefs today “Ye’ janet so’ c’io be ghun le,” or “Son, look after my responsibilities.”
The checkpoints set up by the Gidimt'en and Unist’ot’en follow the laws my great grandfather described in his testimony. The occupants of the camp are an extended family returning home to the land their ancestors were forcibly removed from, in many cases by the RCMP. It would make the violent takedown by the RCMP on the Gidimt'en checkpoint on Monday ironic if it weren’t so heartbreaking. In the end, the hereditary chiefs chose to open the gate to company workers at the Unist’ot’en checkpoint Wednesday out of fear of more violence. It’s sad that Coastal GasLink justified asking for a court injunction with signed agreements from Wet’suwet’en bands.
I’m not advocating for or against the pipeline. I want to see the Wet’suwet’en come back together like we once were and build on where Delgamuukw left off: unite the bands and the clans to uphold the responsibilities our ancestors left us while also working to navigate the challenges of the modern world. We are proving this can work with Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction over child welfare. We can make it work with economic development and environmental stewardship. And if it would prevent conflicts like this from happening in the future, I imagine it’s something BC and Canada could get behind too.
The Wet’suwet’en are peaceful people. But we don’t back down from what we believe in either. There remain Wet’suwet’en people who will do whatever it takes to stop this project to protect the spiritual and environmental integrity and cultural sustenance of the land. Just like there are Wet’suwet’en people desperate to see it go through as a way out of poverty. That is our divide to bridge. But if government and industry continue to bulldoze through our territory before we get a chance to resolve our historical governance challenges, conflicts like this will only continue to escalate.
I spoke to a clan elder before submitting this piece. Her main concern in all that’s transpired is that we’ve forgotten about a key Wet’suwet’en value known as wiggus, or respect. And as the prime minister said, the rule of law must be respected. But which law, Canadian or Wet’suwet’en? Only time will tell.
Trevor Jang is a writer based in Vancouver. He has a mixed-race background of Wet'suwet'en Nation, Chinese and European ancestry.
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