No elected band council or Crown authority has jurisdiction over the land, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief told a crowd of supporters and First Nations leaders gathered in the territory that has become a battleground for Indigenous sovereignty.
Chief Na’Moks said agreements signed by pipeline builder Coastal GasLink are illegitimate and the support shown by those gathered, and by many people around the world, proves the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders do not stand alone.
“Our rights to those lands have never been extinguished,” Na’Moks said during the gathering on Wednesday.
First Nations leaders from across British Columbia travelled to Smithers for the rally to show their support for the hereditary chiefs, after RCMP enforced a court injunction last week allowing the natural gas pipeline company access into the territory.
Following the rally, chiefs and supporters marched along part of Highway 16, which cuts through the Wet’suwet’en territory.
Chiefs and elected council members from several B.C. First Nations, including Haida, Gitxsan, Babine Lake and Lax Kwa’laams, stepped up to share their stories of resistance against industry and frustration with the application of Canadian laws during the gathering.
Wayne Christian of the Secwepemc nation told the crowd that “legislative genocide” had been waged against Indigenous Peoples for generations, referring to colonial and Canadian laws he said have been used to take away land and deny rights.
He said reconciliation cannot occur “at the end of a gun.”
Several leaders spoke about conflicts they have had with industry and cases where Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have shown them support that they now want to return.
Harvey Humchitt, a hereditary chief with the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, where a tug ran aground spilling diesel and lubricants into the waters, said it only takes one incident to cause devastation.
Murray Smith of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation said Na’Moks supported members of his nation trying to protect eel grass from industry at Lelu Island, and again when they appeared before the United Nations to appeal for their authority to be recognized.
“You are in charge of your land, make no mistake about it. We are in charge of our land. And at times, we need to rely on each other for support,” he said.
The natural gas pipeline would run through Wet’suwet’en territory to LNG Canada’s $40-billion export facility in Kitimat, B.C.
The company said it has signed agreements with the elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the route, including some Wet’suwet’en elected council members who say they are independent from the hereditary chief’s authority and signed deals to bring better education, elder care and services to their members.
However many who oppose the pipeline says the company has no authority without consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
The hereditary chiefs say elected bands administer the reserves while they have authority over 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory.
Ayla Brown, an elected councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation, said divisions between elected councils and hereditary leaders has been overstated.
“We’re here to say we stand with you,” she said. ‘There is no division here.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the hereditary system must be protected.
He said images of the RCMP arresting 14 people at a blockade of the pipeline last week have spread across the world.
“We know that small candle of flame that you had at the at the checkpoint has grown into a prairie fire across the country and the world,” he said.
Molly Wickham, a member of the Gidimt’en clan within the Wet’suwet’en nation who was arrested when RCMP enforced a court injunction and dismantled the checkpoint, said she never doubted the righteousness of what she was doing.
“I witnessed excessive force against Indigenous people on our lands,” she said.
The RCMP has said it is launching a review of officers’ actions during the arrests, but police have said they found no initial evidence of misconduct.
Wickham asked anyone who held the checkpoint with her to stand up and about half a dozen in the crowd stood and raised their fist in the air.
She said she and others will continue to defend the land.
“This fight is not over,” Wickham said.
Story by Amy Smart, The Canadian Press