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Debate over Kitimat pipeline highlights little-known power roles within First Nations

Hundreds of people gathered in support of the Unist' ot' en camp and Wet' suwet' en people during their standoff near Houston, B.C. as they protest against the LNG pipeline during a rally at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

KITIMAT (NEWS 1130) – The dispute over an LNG pipeline in northern B.C. is highlighting the little known power roles within some First Nations.

An Indigenous legal expert says the question over who represents Indigenous people is a thorny one, but adds governments and companies must pay attention.

While Coastal GasLink has a signed agreement with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Hereditary Chiefs say it doesn’t apply to their traditional territories.

Val Napoleon with the University of Victoria says governments and companies need to negotiate with both levels of government.

“People can work together across legal orders. You see that happening in Quebec and you see that happening elsewhere in Canada and all around the world. It’s not difficult, what people have to do is make the time for it.”

On Monday, more than a dozen people were arrested after Mounties crossed a barricade at one of two camps on the First Nation to enforce an injunction.

Members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation say the camp where officers have been hovering was established almost a decade ago as a checkpoint to manage entry to traditional territories, but the court-ordered injunction issued late last year ordered the removal of gates across the forest service road.

Napoleon characterizes the situation as a “larger issue of people rebuilding their legal orders and systems of politics.”

“Reconfirming their obligations to the land that they have,” she tells NEWS 1130. “You have a situation where a lot of people are deeply committed to protecting their territories and they’re doing it the best way they know how.”

She says there are also others who are wanting to make decisions they believe are in the best interest of their community.

“I guess the question is: What would be lawful under Wet’suwet’en law?”

And that includes looking at the legitimate processes in place to deal with the legal issues in question.

When it comes to questions around jurisdiction, Napoleon points to the fact that the band council system was created through federal law, with jurisdictional reserves.

“The Hereditary system has ownership of the territories through the system of houses and clans,” she explains. “And all of that was explained to Canada through the Delgamuukw trial that the Supreme Court decided in 1997.”

Part of the problem now, she says, is that our society is based solely on Canadian federal law.

“When disputes arise, it would be helpful to ask: is this lawful? What would be lawful, according to Wet’suwet’en law?”

She says stakeholders looking to negotiate treaties and deals must pay attention to what’s unfolding in B.C., and use it as a lesson for the future.

-With files from Estefania Duran and the Canadian Press