Canada

Opinion: We are Wet’suwet’en and the Coastal GasLink pipeline protesters do not represent us

We want the protesters to cease their blockades and for them to stop misleading people

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The following was authored by members of the Gidimt’en Clan and released by Wet’suwet’en First Nation council at their request.

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We are members of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, together with extended family members from other Wet’suwet’en house groups and communities, both on- and off-reserve. Our clan territories include the area where the Coastal GasLink pipeline crosses the river we call Wedzin Kwa. We are deeply hurt and angered by the conduct and statements of some of our community members and others who claim to be defending our lands and laws against the pipeline.

Our concerns are not about the pipeline itself. Some of us support it, some of us do not and some are neutral. Our issue is that our traditions and way of life are being misrepresented and dishonoured by a small group of protesters, many of whom are neither Gidimt’en nor Wet’suwet’en, but nonetheless claim to be acting in our name to protest natural gas development. On Nov. 20 and 21, we convened a virtual meeting to discuss these issues and the recent RCMP raid that was carried out on our ancestral lands.

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The first thing to understand is that the collective rights of the Wet’suwet’en people to use the land and resources within Wet’suwet’en territory have for hundreds of years been managed through a system of five family based clans led by a hierarchy of leaders who hold hereditary names that have existed since time immemorial. These names are connected to specific areas within our territorial lands, called “nowh yintah,” and have been handed down for generations in a complex governing system we call “Bahlats,” or “the feast hall.”

The names and the powers of those who hold them are conferred on the basis of merit and recognition and, in our Wet’suwet’en law, follow hereditary lines. Traditionally, leaders are groomed for many years by those holding higher rank in the feast hall before progressing to greater responsibilities. Proper conduct and “wiggus” (respect) are among the many valuable lessons passed on during the grooming.

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This process and the conduct of other business in our traditional system is governed by strict laws and protocols that the leaders are expected to uphold. It is very sad that so many Wet’suwet’en women who supported the pipeline were stripped of their hereditary titles to which they were entitled and the names were passed on to those who oppose the pipeline. Unfortunately, the hereditary system has been disrupted due to disagreements over the pipeline. We hope we can move past this and come together in unity and peace. After all, whether hereditary or elected, the care and concern for the collective is central to everyone involved, even though they take different approaches.

The second important thing to understand is that our internal laws are based on a foundational principle of respect that we call “wiggus.” This basically means respect for all things: respect for ourselves and for each other, respect for other people, respect for the feast system, respect for our territorial land and clan boundaries, and respect for all the resources of the land. We reserve the highest levels of respect for our matriarchs, the wise older women who hold a special place in our affairs, as well as for the integrity of lands and resources that are held by other clans.

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We regret to say that nearly everything the so-called Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters have been doing is in direct conflict with these traditional laws and protocols. Their main public spokesperson holds a minor name and is very new to our feast hall. She cannot claim expert knowledge about our culture, yintah and feast hall. She is new to our nation and is not in any way a matriarch, as some have claimed. Nor has she, her supporters or any supporting head chief ever consulted any of us about what they are doing and saying on our behalf.

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This rift originally stems from an internal dispute that took place in the feast hall and, although we do not wish to discuss clan business publicly, we will say that our matriarchs have been disrespected, bullied, marginalized and mistreated by those who are enabling the spokesperson’s influence on nowh yintah.

The protesters have also taken it upon themselves to invite violent people into our territories. We are not violent people. We settle our issues with dialogue and respect. We do not need “warriors” from other First Nations or non-Wet’suwet’en protesters to protect us or speak for us, especially when so many Gidimt’en and so many Wet’suwet’en do not support them. This adversarial approach places our community members at risk, and increases the risk to Wet’suwet’en women, including those who are hereditary chiefs. Remember, we live along the “Highway of Tears.”

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Many are also afraid to speak up because of bullying and alienation by aggressive and confrontational people on social media, who do not know the facts. While we understand that many strive to support our perceived struggles through social media, the fact is that many of them have no idea about the history, culture and dynamics at play here, and are doing a grave disservice to many grassroots Gidimt’en, whose ancestors have thrived on nowh yintah since time immemorial.

The multitude of outside voices on social media has also served to overshadow the voices of the Gidimt’en and Wet’suwet’en. It has left a majority of Gidimt’en matriarchs, Gidimt’en clan members and Wet’suwet’en voices overlooked, marginalized and disrespected. We are hopeful that those on social media will consider these points and allow all Gidimt’en and Wet’suwet’en to work through these issues in a peaceful and respectful manner that does not put anyone in danger.

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It is very unfortunate that the conflict has escalated the way it has. Even though we strongly disagree with the militant actions of those claiming to act and speak on our behalf, we seek a peaceful resolution, and we sincerely hope that nobody gets hurt or killed.

There are other issues with these protests. Their campsites are environmentally disgraceful and the road that they excavated did not just block pipeline workers, it also blocked our members who use it to access territory and resources to which they are entitled.

We also very much understand climate change and the importance of caring for our communities and future generations, but we do not support the conduct of those who are harming the Canadian economy and encouraging supporters to “shut down Canada” during this time of pandemic and crises throughout British Columbia. This is not our way.

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Then, there is the money. In our culture, money that is raised in the clan’s name is accounted for through the feast system. However, we have received no accounting for the many thousands of dollars in donations that are being collected by protesters in our name.

Worst of all, and what causes us to come forward at this time, is that the protesters who claim to respect Wet’suwet’en law showed no respect whatsoever for two of our leading matriarchs who died in recent weeks, or for their families. It is a basic rule in our culture that non-essential activities must cease during a period of mourning; however, protests and public activities carried on as if nothing had happened.

The daughter of one of the late matriarchs stated that, “While we brought mom home on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, a concert was held at Bovill Square in Smithers by an acquaintance who assists with activities at Gidimt’en Checkpoint. Two of the protesting head chiefs also marched down Main Street in Smithers on the same day.”

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The grieving families are devastated by this cruel and shameful misconduct toward their own people and feel marginalized from their ancestral lands, language and oral histories.

Clan chiefs are responsible to their clan members, but their current governance model makes it impossible for hereditary chiefs to fulfill their cultural responsibilities. To make things worse, these hereditary chiefs and some others are secretly negotiating agreements about our rights and title with the federal and provincial governments, according to a memorandum of understanding that was signed to end last year’s protests over the pipeline. All of these circumstances leave us questioning how we can move beyond the conflict and take a more unified approach for the good of all Wet’suwet’en.

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We want the protesters to cease their blockades and for them to stop misleading people and making false claims about our laws. This letter arises from the voices and concerns of a number of Wet’suwet’en matriarchs, Gidimt’en matriarchs, Gidimt’en clan members and members of other clans. We have the right to share our thoughts and concerns about our territory without backlash from those within our nation, but also from non-Wet’suwet’en people who have little or no understanding of our culture, our history, our internal dynamics or our ancestral ways.

We ask the media to respect our privacy and security while we grieve for our late matriarchs. Due to COVID-19 and our responsibility to observe a mourning period for our deceased community members and female hereditary chiefs, we will not be granting further interviews at this time.

National Post

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