Posts By: Emily McCarty

The Complicated History of Hereditary Chiefs and Elected Councils

Douglas Sanderson | University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Douglas Sanderson | University of Toronto Faculty of Law

The recent internal struggles between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and elected council has many wondering: what powers rest with whom?

The Wet’suwet’en nation is made up of five clans, and within those, 13 houses. The five hereditary chiefs representing the clans are all opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline running through their territory, while the elected council gave their go-ahead.

Elected chiefs and council generally hold authority over reserve lands and their infrastructure. Traditional chiefs oversee the territories and hold ceremonial and historical importance to First Nations.

Electoral systems are a result of the section 74 of the Indian Act, imposed upon First Nations by Canada. It was designed to eradicate the hereditary system and create something more recognizable for the western government.

Gina Starblanket, who is Cree and Saulteaux and a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation in Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan, is an assistant professor in Indigenous Politics at the University of Calgary.  

She says that hereditary chiefs hold a symbolic role as well as a practical one. She acknowledges that it becomes particularly complicated when the question arises of who represents the nation’s voice in external relations, as in the Wet’suwet’en case.

“Hereditary chiefs are often recognized as traditional knowledge keepers, and in some contexts are recognized as having greater authority and rights relative to things like traditional territory or cultural knowledge and tradition,” she says. “But again, this varies from community to community and is also contested within communities.”

When it comes to where the authority lies, the answer is complex. The pipeline has just magnified the continual question of who controls what.

In a media release from the Wet’sewet’en, Chief Na’moks emphasized their rights to protection of their lands.

“The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have maintained their use and occupancy of their lands and hereditary governance system for thousands of years. Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs are the Title Holders and maintain authority and jurisdiction to make decisions on unceded lands,” it said.

Chief Kloum Kuhn said the hereditary chiefs will never support the Coastal GasLink project.

“Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en, Wet’suwet’en rule of law, all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals and given no authority to Coastal Gaslink/TransCanada to do work on Wet’suwet’en lands,” he said.

BRINGING THEM TOGETHER

Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii), a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, is a professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto.

He says the answer is more an amalgamation of the hereditary and the elected systems, especially when it comes to working with those outside the community.

“I think what we need to do is find a way to bring these two things together, so that you just have a decision making body,” Sanderson says. “The problem is created because outsiders don’t understand our communities. They’ve never been there, they don’t know how to operate.”

He says it’s integral that companies like the Coastal GasLink pipeline know the communities they’re working with, and that the confrontation should have been obvious if they had met with the Wet’suwet’en.

“They obviously didn’t spend any time there,” Sanderson says. “So they shouldn’t be surprised that this is unraveling in the way that it is.”

AN ASSIMILATORY PROCESS

The proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline will run through 20 First Nations’ territories and the company received approval from all of them, although they sought assent only from elected officials. Some hereditary leaders also gave the thumbs up, but ultimately the go-ahead came from signed agreements with elected officials.

The reactions were mixed, but public opinion seemed to strongly sway toward supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Protests and rallies were held across Canada. Celebrities and musicians across North America voiced their support. Hereditary chiefs and elected council members from other bands wrote letters of encouragement.

Starblanket says this example of the clash between elected and hereditary leadership illustrates the problematic nature of electoral process.

“In many instances where those electoral systems were imposed, that was in an assimilatory process that was intended to undermine traditional leadership,” she says. “It also allowed for the imposition of patriarchal processes because it denied women’s jurisdiction and participation in selecting leaders.”

She emphasizes that she is from the prairie communities and doesn’t want to speak on behalf of the coastal communities.

“These electoral processes were imposed on all of us,” Starblanket says. “But also traditionally, they looked very different.”

Gordon Christie agrees on the fluctuations within Indigenous groups. He’s Inuvialuit and a professor at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, who studies Aboriginal rights.

“It can be variable, depending on the community or nation,” Christie says. “You’re talking about many First Nations communities that have resisted the imposition of band councils since day one, and they continue to today. Others resisted in the early stages, but then became comfortable with the band council system.”

He says there are First Nations that are comfortable with the band council system because that’s what they have known for generations.

“You’ve got a whole range of different histories. You have to go to each nation and find out what their story is,” he says.

A HISTORY OF RESISTANCE

Christie say the 1920s were a turning point for First Nations communities in Canada, when the country put its foot down, making it illegal to litigate and shut down a lot of legal outlets for Indigenous communities.

“That was a time of strong resistance,” Christie says. “Canada’s response was to get more harsh in its position, and in some communities, it moved in and physically removed the old hereditary system and put in place the band council system.”

For now, he agrees with the hereditary chiefs.

“For the Wet’suwet’en, you have the houses and the clans,” he says. “It makes complete sense to say that they have legal authority over their house territories.”

 

Indigenous College Students Cope with Life Away from Home

Melissa West Morrison | UBC Aboriginal Student Affairs

Melissa West Morrison | UBC Aboriginal Student Affairs

Receiving a college acceptance letter in the mail is a watershed moment for many young adults, but stepping into that empty dorm room is another experience altogether.

More and more universities in Canada are building comprehensive Indigenous resource systems on campus and providing holistic opportunities for education.

While those supports are integral to ensure healthy and equal opportunities for Indigenous students, there’s another resource that most students away from home already have: social media.

It may get a bad rap these days, but now there is research showing that it provides more opportunities to sustain relationships with family and friends. Those students who move away from home especially benefit when logging on.

Far from Home

A study out of the University of Kansas examining international students found that adjusting to college life was made easier when they went online. The study found that interacting online provided a unique connection to people back home who shared the same culture.

While no research has yet been done on the the social media usage of Indigenous students, they share similar experiences with those international students who may be leaving a distinct cultural support system behind.

Adjusting to major life changes is challenging at any age, but it’s a two-for-one shock for students who both move away from home and are immersed in a completely new environment.

Adapting to college life, from sudden absolute freedom to the terrifying task of self management, is one of the most challenging times that young adults will face. There is pressure to not only succeed academically but to fit in socially.

A study published in 2016 looked at all of these components and found that particularly for college students, social media helped them adjust and cope to that exotic landscape.

It’s not just friends that students are reconnecting with: relationships with family also dramatically alter when kids move away. Researchers at Kent State University looked at how they interacted online with their nuclear family.

They found that when parents and children interact on social networks like Facebook, they are also more likely to talk in person: these online connections directly translated to more face-to-face time.

Longhouses, Gardens, and Podcasts

While social media plays a large role in how students cope with a new life away from home, the resources that universities provide also make a difference.

The University of British Columbia offers a First Nation and Indigenous Studies (FNIS) program that incorporates the Indigenous Health Research and Education Garden. The garden gives chances for students to learn about traditional plants and medicines, while also hosting a program that invites urban youth to come and learn.

The FNIS program spoke to several students about their experiences on campus. Melissa West Morrison, who is Kwakwaka’wakw, Namgis First Nation, and Chinese, was an intern at the Xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden. This internship not only introduced her to other students, but built up relationships with elders, an opportunity that many Indigenous students may miss.

“During my time at the Garden, I was the lead intern working with the Medicine Collective. I was really fortunate to be able to learn from Indigenous Elders and Knowledge-Keepers sharing traditional teachings and supporting workshops to reconnect and restore our relationships to lands and peoples that live on Turtle Island,” she told the FNIS program.

UBC also has its student-ran radio station, CiTR. It hosts Unceded Airwaves, a radio program hosted by the Indigenous Collective.

Nikita Day, who was getting her minor in First Nations and Indigenous Studies, said although she helped with Unceded Airwaves, she wished she had taken more advantage of the school-run programs.

“It wasn’t really until my third year that I started going to the longhouse and collaborating with the other Indigenous students, and that has turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ll take away from my time here,” she told the program.

“I know how difficult it can be attending an institution like UBC for the first time especially if, like me, you come from a much smaller place. My advice for other Indigenous students would be to try getting involved.”

 

Supreme Court Finds Government Does Not Have to Consult First Nations

First Nations ConsultationThe Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the federal government has no obligation to consult First Nations when drafting legislation.

Seven out of nine judges came to the conclusion on Thursday, in a long battle originally set forth by the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s lawsuit in 2013.

The Mikisew say their struggle is not over and they expect Canada to continue to consult with First Nations in all decisions.

“Mikisew and other First Nations have valuable knowledge, laws and experience to contribute,” said Mikisew Chief Archie Waquan in a statement on Thursday. “We should be at the table with the government, not reacting after the fact through litigation. The Crown has said they could and would consult and we will hold them to that promise.”

Some point to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which says the government has a duty to consult with Indigenous peoples. However, this only applies to
treaty rights, and the Mikisew want that applied to legislation.

Some of the Supreme Court judges agree that consultation is still important. Five of the judges from Thursday’s ruling said the government must still act honourably when consulting with Indigenous people, but when it comes down to enacting legislation, the waters become muddier.

Minister of Justice Jody Wilson Raybould issued a statement on Thursday echoing that sentiment, saying the government wants to work with First Nations but how that plays out is more intricate.

“While the court has been clear that the duty to consult is not triggered in the legislative process, it also makes clear that Indigenous rights must be respected, upheld and protected,” the statement read. “Our Government remains wholly committed to respecting our Constitution and respecting and upholding Indigenous rights, and will continue to work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples on matters that directly and significantly affect them.”

Mikisew Lawsuit

The court case began when the Mikisew challenged the Harper government’s introduction of two 2012 omnibus bills that drastically altered several environmental acts, including the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

They brought their argument in a lawsuit against the government in 2013.

“The lack on consultation on these bills led to bad laws, which resulted in failures like the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project and weaker environmental protection for all Canadians,” said Robert Janes, Mikisew’s legal counsel, in a statement on Thursday.

The Mikisew say they passed these laws without consultation with affected First Nations. The bills reduced government oversight, which the Mikisew says overstepped boundaries guaranteed under Treaty 8, which guaranteed the First Nations the right to hunt, trap and fish in exchange for their land.

However, in 2016, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned their argument that the government has a legally binding duty to consult with First Nations. The Mikisew then took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which resulted in Thursday’s decision.

First Nations Response

Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations’ Regional Chief of Alberta, says she was deeply disappointed and frustrated with the decision.

“[This is] a missed opportunity for meaningful involvement of First Nations in the legislative process, a process that can have deep and lasting impacts on our peoples, our lands, our waters, and our Treaty and Inherent Rights,” she said in a statement released on Thursday.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde also expressed disappointment on the decision but says he wants to continue to lift up the Mikisew Cree First Nation for their diligence.

“FIrst Nations maintain that Canada must engage with First Nations on any initiatives that could impact our rights,” he said on social media. “The honour of the Crown must be ensured and maintained.”

 

BC First Nations Discuss Pipeline

Photo provided by Eagle Vision/Direct Horizontal

 

After the federal decision on May 29 to purchase Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project, Indigenous people have weighed in on every side of the pronouncement.
Currently, over a dozen lawsuits are filed against the Crown by Indigenous and environmental groups who oppose the pipeline expansion.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Squamish Nation, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation are some of the most vocal opposition to the pipeline, while outspoken supporters have included those such as the Cheam First Nation, Simpcw First Nation, and Whispering Pines Clinton Indian Band.

Kinder Morgan had previously listed signed benefits agreements with 43 First Nations, 33 of which were in B.C., however, in a recent report, two B.C. chiefs said they only signed the agreements because they felt their future was futile and not because of support for the project.

Trudeau visits pipeline committee
Prime Minister Trudeau recently met with the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee (IAMC), on June 5 at the Cheam First Nation reserve.

The committee advises regulators and monitors the expansion project. It’s constituted of 13 Indigenous representatives and six senior federal representatives. The committee states that participation by a community doesn’t indicate support nor approval but instead a “shared goal of safety and protection of environmental and Indigenous interests in the lands and waters.”

Cheam Chief Ernie Crey sits as co-chair on the committee.

Crey said the Prime Minister’s office reached out to the IAMC and requested an opportunity to meet. The Indigenous caucus raised five central issues to the Prime Minister.

Some of those involved transforming the IAMC from an advisory to a co-management role, building with respect to Indigenous rights and consultation, and minimizing the impact of the pipeline.

Crey said the committee was “very satisfied” with Trudeau’s responses. He said they stressed the importance of taking the IAMC from an advisory to a co-management role and that Trudeau’s response was reassuring.

“We were able to put across to him that that’s the direction we want to take things in. It was complementary to what the government has already said they’re prepared to do,” Crey said. “He was basically saying, that’s the direction we’re going in. There’s work to be done and we understand that.”

As for any promises, Crey said Trudeau’s response was that “his government is committed to continue to work with them.”
“Everyone was happy with that,” Crey said.

Squamish Nation sits determined
The Squamish Nation didn’t hide their contempt after news of the buyout, issuing a scalding May 29 news release saying the Prime Minister betrayed the Indigenous people.

The nation had recently suffered a defeat as their case dismissed was by the B.C. Supreme Court, where the judge found pipeline consultation with the nation to be sufficient.

Their mindset toward the pipeline has not changed since the ruling, stating they are “appalled” by the purchase.

“This is a continued betrayal of promises made to us by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He told Canada’s Indigenous people that our Rights would be respected and upheld. He has broken that promise. He promised us he would put the pipeline expansion through a brand new review. He has broken that promise as well,” said Khelsilem, their elected councilor and spokesperson, in the press release.

Their statement goes on to proclaim that the Prime Minister’s move now forces all Canadians to take on the “risky” project as taxpayer dollars are funding the pipeline.

Khelsilem said further in the statement that “the Squamish Nation will continue to fight to protect our inlet, our communities and our economy … We have a Right to practice our culture, our way of life, and to continue our Right to self-determination in our territories. This is a Right that we have never surrendered, and it is a Right we will continue to defend.”

They state a bitumen marine spill would be “catastrophic” and a reminder that tankers pass by three Squamish Nation communities on the Burrard Inlet.

The new parallel pipeline will run alongside the existing 65-year-old pipe, increasing bitumen (unrefined oil), to 890,000 from 300,000 barrels per day, nearly tripling capacity. The Burnaby export terminal, in Tsleil-Waututh’s traditional territory, will see an increase of tankers to 34 from five, every month.

Simplifying the conversation
Chief Michael LeBourdais of the Whispering Pines Clinton Indian Band never had a problem with the pipeline. What bothered him was the jurisdiction. He said when Ian Anderson, President of Kinder Morgan Canada, initially came to Whispering Pines, it began as a fight. He said they fought for five years, from 2007 to 2012, over taxes and jurisdictions.

Once they finished negotiating the deal wherein Kinder Morgan would pay taxes and respect their environmental jurisdiction, he was okay with it.

“We were never opposed to any pipe or any project in our territory,” he said. “A good percentage of my population, including myself, have worked in the oil patch so we understand the safety protocols, safety redundancy, and oil spill response when it comes to oil pipes and drill sites.”

And they are fine with the government purchasing the pipeline, he said, and that ha actually simplified the conversation.

“We already know them, they know us,” LeBourdais said. “Sometimes you need the federal government to step in to get through a rough patch.”

He said this can also be a good start for reconciliation. “Reconciliation is a huge, huge undertaking by the federal government. This can be a part of it,” LeBourdais said. There are only probably 50 bands affected by this project and we have over 600 in Canada. So this is a good start on how to work and get along with those communities.”

One thing all First Nations have in common, he said, is a desire for jurisdiction. “We all want tax money and all want environmental oversight. I want to get along, share in the resources, and share in the wealth of the community. We want our fair share,” LeBourdais said.

He said he doesn’t understand the demonization of the pipeline. LeBourdais said the responsibility lies with operators, captains, and tug boats for example, and not to use the pipeline as a catch-all.

“That’s the message we’re trying to get out to Canadians who oppose the pipeline in general. To demonize oil is crazy – it’s just a resource and it’s one that Canada has in abundance,” LeBourdais said.