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Wet'suwet'en chiefs have right to protect territory, Dene Nation chief says

Dene Nation chief Norman Yakeleya speaks to reporters on Wednesday about the ongoing pipeline dispute in northwestern British Columbia, and the protests and blockades by supporters of pipeline opponents. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation should deal with their problems themselves without RCMP involvement, says Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya.

The chief spoke to a group of reporters on Wednesday to explain the position of the Dene Nation on the ongoing blockades and protests related to the pipeline dispute in northwestern British Columbia.

As of Thursday morning, the Hereditary Chiefs were negotiating a deal that would involve the RCMP withdrawing its detachment near an anti-pipeline blockade site just south of Houston, B.C.

The Coastal GasLink (CGL) project of TC Energy would carry natural gas through a 670-kilometre pipeline from northeast B.C. to a processing facility in Kitimat on the Pacific coast.

Dene Nation chief Norman Yakeleya speaks to reporters on Wednesday about the ongoing pipeline dispute in northwestern British Columbia, and the protests and blockades by supporters of pipeline opponents. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

The elected councils from 20 First Nations along the pipeline route have signed benefits agreements with TC. Five of the six elected councils of the Wet'suwet'en Nation have signed on as well, but most of the Hereditary Chiefs of that nation are opposed to it, citing their outstanding Aboriginal title to traditional territory.

Several people were arrested after the RCMP enforced a CGL court injunction that sought the dismantlement of blockades impeding pipeline workers from accessing work sites, south of Houston, B.C.

“Let our people deal with it! Come on guys! We're not babies. We've been here for 30,000 years. How long as the government been here? One-hundred and fifty years maybe? We have our own ways of dealing with things. I have faith in our people,” Yakeleya told reporters.

“(The Hereditary Chiefs) are the traditional chiefs through their clan system. They have every right to protect their territory. They have every right to assert their traditional laws and ceremonies. They have the power and they're asserting their sovereignty. And they have the right to have time and space to work with the elected chiefs and council.”

Responding to an inquiry from Yellowknifer about the lessons that NWT residents can learn from the conflict in northwestern B.C, Yakeleya said people should remember that Indigenous people are more than just interest groups.

“Government seems to think that Indigenous governments are stakeholders. We're not stakeholders. The NWT Mining Association is a stakeholder. We have Section 35 rights. You're talking to a nation of people in the land claims agreements, in the land use plans. We've really got to look at this. The territorial government is still a government that was dropped here by the federal government without even consulting Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 (people).”

The chief added that the demonstrations of solidarity from protesters across the country and from Mohawk supporters blockading a railway in Ontario shows that “it's time Canada wakes up.”

“The most powerful thing you see when all the Indigenous people get together, they (practically) brought Canada's economy to its knees. People in the news are saying there's no food on the shelves, running low on fuel – hey welcome to our world! That's what's happening in our small communities. The high cost of food, the high cost of living, elders are paying for these costs. I grew up in that world. It bothers us.”

The Dene Nation supports the Hereditary Chiefs and a call to action, said Yakeleya, adding that the nation also backs peaceful, productive and calm protests.

Yakeleya also drew a parallel between the pipeline dispute and the proposed Frontier oil sands project of Teck Resources, a scheme that has drawn criticism from some Indigenous leaders in the NWT and northern Alberta because of concerns of downstream pollution.

"That issue could be - if the government doesn't listen - our Wet'suwet'en issue. That's how important it is, because water is life," the chief said.

The pipeline dispute has been lingering for several years and TC claims it has been consulting with the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs since 2012.

The Calgary-based company had considered an alternate route for the pipeline that would go around traditional Wet'suwet'en territory but rejected it as unfeasible.

The actual route of the $6.6 billion pipeline currently under preparation goes straight through traditional Wet'suwet'en territory, which comprises about 22,000 square kilometres, according to the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, an entity governed by the Hereditary Chiefs.

At the core of the pipeline dispute is the Supreme Court's Delgamuukw decision in 1997. The verdict found that the Aboriginal title of the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan nations had not been ceded by any treaty, though the case didn't resolve substantive details of that title.