The mood seemed optimistic Friday as meetings between the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and senior ministers from Ottawa and B.C. resumed, with the groups working to break an impasse in a pipeline dispute that has sparked protests across the country.
“There’s progress. It’s slow but there’s progress,” hereditary chief Na’Moks said during a brief break from negotiations in Smithers, B.C., late Friday morning.
Na’Moks is one of several hereditary chiefs who opposes the Coastal GasLink pipeline set to run through traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en. This week’s meetings are discussing the $6.6-billion pipeline project, as well as concern around Indigenous rights to land and title.
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser seemed hopeful, saying everyone is committed to working through the “complex and difficult” issues at hand.
“It feels like a good day,” Fraser said Friday.
“The important thing is that we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and get to the complex and difficult issues, and we began that yesterday and we’re going to continue that today.”
‘Heavy discussions’ ahead
Friday’s round of meetings went ahead after preliminary discussions on Thursday.
“This first day … lays out the groundwork. [On Friday] we’ll get into the heavy discussions,” Na’moks told CBC News.
“I expect these to be long days, because they’re getting here late in the game,” he added.
A previous statement from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan declined invitations to attend the meetings.
On Friday, Bennett said progress needs to be made before the senior politicians take part.
“We need to do some hard work. We would want any meeting with the prime minister and the premier to be a good meeting,” Bennett said.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said he has no plans to go to Smithers in the near future and he’s been advised that talks have been co-operative, cordial and respectful.
“I am hopeful, as I have always been, that there can be a peaceful resolution and a way forward, not just in Wet’suwet’en territory, not just in British Columbia, but indeed across the country.”
Discussions go beyond a pipeline
The first day of meetings wrapped up after about three hours. Fraser said the day was productive and the mood in the room was respectful. The B.C. minister declined to give specifics on progress, saying he didn’t want to “jeopardize anything.”
Na’moks left Wet’suwet’en offices without making a statement, but told CBC that the issues at the heart of the discussions go far beyond a single pipeline project.
“We’ve seen what’s happening across Canada and we have more than a willingness for that to cease, but there has to be some positive, progressive changes — and we’re talking about the relationship between all Indigenous people and Canada and British Columbia and each of the provinces themselves,” said Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale. “That’s the goal here.”
Both the RCMP and Coastal GasLink have agreed to conditions requested by the chiefs to allow the discussions to progress.
No RCMP patrols
Mounties ended patrols along the Morice River Service Road, a critical roadway, while negotiations unfold. The natural gas company agreed to a two-day pause on construction in the area in a similar vein.
The hereditary chiefs’ opposition to a natural gas pipeline cutting across their traditional territory, coupled with their efforts to limit police presence on their lands, have sparked shows of support across the country, which have halted rail service for the past three weeks.
The dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project began months ago, but tensions rose on Dec. 31, when the B.C. Supreme Court granted TC Energy an injunction calling for the removal of any obstructions from roads, bridges or work sites it has been authorized to use in Wet’suwet’en territory.
The RCMP moved in to enforce that injunction on Feb. 6. Hours later, protesters started holding up railway traffic outside of Belleville, Ont., in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, thwarting freight and passenger rail travel.