B.C.'s Indigenous Affairs Minister Murray Rankin is defending his government's approach to working with the Wet'suwet'en Nation on land management after RCMP officers were deployed to arrest opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project being built in northwest B.C.
Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with multiple elected band councils along the pipeline route.
But the company has failed to gain approval from the majority of hereditary chiefs within the Wet'suwet'en who, in the landmark Delgamuukw case, were recognized as having authority over the land that predates the establishment of elected band councils created by Canada's Indian Act.
Still, the provincial government, under the B.C. Liberals, approved the project in 2014 and it continues to be supported by the governing NDP.
For this reason, B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen has accused the province of leveraging division between elected Wet'suwet'en chiefs and councillors and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to protect corporate interests.
"This government has been exploiting divisions in our communities created by the Indian Act," Olsen said this week.
"This government soaks in the accolades of passing the [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act], but then are unwilling to change the racist government structures that have created the conflict that we face today instead of the much assured reconciliation."
But Rankin says his government remains committed to reconciliation.
"My reaction is that it is entirely an unfair characterization," he said in an interview with CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.
"The community is divided as a result of the impacts and trauma of colonialism — it is the federal government that created [the] Indian Act," he said. "It is absolutely unfair to say we are exploiting those divisions — we're trying to unify the nation."
In Feb. 2019, the B.C. NDP government began a reconciliation process with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. This April, the government reached a three-year agreement with the chiefs to provide them $7.2 million in support of their efforts to reunify members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation in order to implement their rights and title.
But Rankin said that process has been slowed by a number of factors including COVID-19.
"My hope is that we can get back to that table to do that long overdue work," he said.
When asked why RCMP were deployed to Wet'suwet'en territory to make arrests during a provincial state of emergency in southern B.C., Rankin said that was a decision made by police, and that politicians do not and should not have any say over their operations.
"The province did not bring that injunction … It was the company who sought the assistance of the court through an injunction to allow it to do work that it had the legal right to pursue," he said.
"In our democracy, it is not the government of the day that directs police to do their work."
B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, who signed an agreement supporting Coastal GasLink when he was chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, also spoke up about the pipeline this week, arguing the project has created economic prosperity for First Nations.
He also says activists acting in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs are being disrespectful to the Wet'suwet'en First Nation's elected band chiefs and councils who support the pipeline project.
"Everybody's manipulating First Nations for their own purposes and their own agenda, and it's wrong, especially when you think about what these elected leaders [have been] trying to achieve for the last 15 years at least — they were trying to get their people out of poverty, away from suicide, away from imprisonment," Ross said on CBC's On The Coast.
But hereditary chiefs and their supporters say they will continue to act to prevent the pipeline from being built.
"It is Cas Yikh territory. That means we're the stewards," Chief Woos, one of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, said in an interview on CBC As It Happens this week. "We're the ones that make decisions as to who can go on our territory. And it's not up to [Coastal GasLink]. It's not up to a court system to decide that. It's not up to them."