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.”