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One step forward, one step back

Dallas Smith shares his perspective on leadership, UNDRIP, the Wet’suwet’en dispute, and the meaning of consent.
Still standing.

When someone was coming down to the ring that would change things, renowned WWE commentator Jim Ross used to say “business is about to pick up.”

When it comes to UNDRIP and the province’s new DRIPA (Bill 41) legislation and what’s going on in Wet’suwet’en territory and the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline project, something is definitely “picking up” – but it sure isn’t business as usual.

We have hereditary chiefs armed with eviction notices; a company with approved permits and Impact Benefit Agreements with all 20 First Nations along the proposed route; RCMP in tactical gear; and a provincial government that seems content to stay out of the fracas – all while the world is watching and commenting.

Since 2012 CGL has been working to gain approval and build their 680-kilometer pipeline to transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to LNG Canada’s facility in Kitimat for export to Asian markets. During this time CGL has secured Environmental Assessment Certificates from the Province and the Oil and Gas Commission (including amended certificates for alternate routes), and negotiated and signed benefits agreements with the 20 First Nations along the pipeline route – including the elected council of the Wet’suwet’en. This was no small task; over the last seven years many of the First Nations have had elections and turnover in leadership.

From an outside perspective, it all sounds straightforward enough. But as you’ve seen, not all the hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en agree with the steps their elected council has taken to support and approve the project.

This is where things has gotten complicated –and a little concerning.

From an outside perspective, it all sounds straightforward enough.

CGL has received consent as per the rules that existed at the time. But in what was supposed to be a positive step forward for reconciliation when UNDRIP was passed unanimously in the legislature, the lack of clarity has been a big step back. It has put the spotlight on a Nation divided against itself, with an elected council supporting the much-needed jobs and opportunities the project brings at odds with the hereditary leadership standing against the project, believing the infringement of the pipeline will negatively affect their rights and title.

I respect both the hereditary chiefs’ right to have a say in what goes on in their homelands, as well as the elected council’s responsibility to find opportunities that help raise their community out of crippling socioeconomic realities. But I wish they would discuss these issues internally (they could very well be) instead of letting all their respective “allies” control the messaging.

Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is a major pillar of UNDRIP. I truly believe it will be crucial if we’re serious about changing how we approach reconciliation and ending the genocidal colonialism of First Nations peoples. I believe Bill 41 has the potential to be a much-needed game changer – but I also believe there needed to be more dialogue between BC and First Nations – and vastly more dialogue in First Nations communities, amongst themselves and with their neighbours (including hereditary and elected leadership) before this major step was prematurely made.

I wish they would discuss these issues internally instead of letting their respective “allies” control the messaging.

Every First Nation has the right to be a part of the decision-making process when it comes to the development of resources within its traditional territory, just as much as they have with decisions made on their “reserves.” In most communities, elected councils have responsibility for that role, both on recognized Indian Act “reserves,” and thanks to Court wins like Delgamuukw and Haida, beyond into what is known as traditional territories. Some communities have started to involve hereditary leadership to that process, and some have not.

In my experience, most First Nations communities have not been put in a position to be successful decision makers. Lack of capacity is one challenge. Another is devastating socioeconomic conditions – poverty. Blend those with 200 years of colonialism that included residential school, sexual, physical, and systematic abuse that left us broke, battered, and unable to trust anyone – including ourselves.

It’s not a tremendous foundation to build a new tomorrow on.

However, First Nations culture is a powerful force that has kept us alive, vibrant, and relative until tomorrow comes. Thanks to amazing elders who kept our culture alive, and the fortitude of our people who have educated themselves both culturally and through schooling to make that tomorrow a better day.

Since time immemorial (greater than 14,000 years), hereditary chiefs were charged with ensuring the community and its needs were taken care of. This was achieved by the hard work and leadership of the clan chiefs and the support of their families. It was made possible with traditional ecological knowledge, an extensive trade economy – and yes, even warfare and slavery played a role.

Since contact this system has been fragmented. Along with the support of their families, hereditary chiefs have been mainly responsible for ensuring the continuation of our culture and that traditional practices are maintained. Elected councils (which some hereditary chiefs are a part of) have become the de facto decision makers.

I believe the term “hereditary chief” has become a loaded term. Over my 25 years in First Nations governance I have seen both the Developer and Environmental Activist communities try to bastardize our culture by providing individuals financial incentive to have chiefs side with them. Whether elected or hereditary, true leaders make decisions in the best interests of the people and lands that make them who they are.

I believe the term “hereditary chief” has become a loaded term.

If we’re truly going to make UNDRIP a reality, We as First Nations communities need to “circle the wagons.” We need to determine how and who gives consent and what steps we need to take as a community to build the necessary capacity to become as informed as possible to make Free, Prior, and Informed Consent a tool that will really change our tomorrow.

Consent does not mean the opinion of the highest bidder gets approved. Nor does it mean we stop everything because it’s more socially palatable, or because some people somewhere else disagree.

Whether hereditary, elected or some kind of hybrid, it is the inherent responsibility of that leadership body to become as informed as possible with all the facts about about any given project or proposal.

It’s the community that will have to live or die with the reality of consent – or lack thereof – and it’s the families that will have to keep supporting the chiefs and keeping leadership accountable.

Just as we have done since time immemorial.

Dallas Smith is the President of Nanwakolas Council, a former provincial candidate and has over 20 years experience working for First Nations with government, industry and environmental groups.