On February 10, 2020, police arrested seven people while raiding the Unist’ot’en camp in northwestern British Columbia. Among those arrested were Freda Huson and her niece Karla Tait, both respected members within Wet’suwet’en culture. Their detainment helped trigger a cascade of solidarity actions across the country that ground the national economy to a halt. For a moment, at least, Canada was paying attention to Indigenous rights. A year later, it may seem as though little has changed. But, after years of resistance, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders have achieved a long-awaited breakthrough in government–Indigenous relations.

The Unist’ot’en camp, established in 2010, has been a hub of Wet’suwet’en cultural resurgence and, by extension, a base of resistance to pipeline development in the nation’s territories. Since 2015, members of the Wet’suwet’en community and their supporters have erected checkpoints to stop TC Energy employees and contractors from building the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would transect about 190 kilometres of Wet’suwet’en territory. Protests last winter blocked ports, bridges, border crossings, and railway corridors. Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, demanded government action as the $425 million of goods that Canadian railways carry each day had been left stranded.

The spread of COVID-19 and the resulting global economic shutdown would overshadow news of the blockade, the protests, and their aftermath. But Wet’suwet’en resistance continued, and in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs achieved a milestone, signing a Memorandum of Understanding on May 14 that recognizes their authority over the territories and outlines a process for negotiating shared jurisdiction. The agreement affirms the provincial and Canadian governments’ recognition that Wet’suwet’en traditional authorities hold territorial rights and title “under their system of governance.”

The memorandum marks an apparent shift in provincial policy. It is the first instance in which the province has signalled its willingness to proactively recognize Aboriginal title and negotiate shared jurisdiction over the land. It reflects the government’s commitment to engage Indigenous governance traditions not simply as a historic residue to be removed but as part of the future of resource management in the province.

Now, a year after the protests began, it’s not yet clear how shared jurisdiction between the provincial government and hereditary chiefs would work. How can legal paradigms that treat natural resources as commodities be married to Wet’suwet’en responsibilities to the spirit of the land? If history is any indication, the province still has much to learn.

The provincial government approaches natural resources as commodities to be exploited. The Coastal GasLink project, spanning 670 kilometres, would link unconventional gas production in northeastern British Columbia to an export facility in Kitimat. The $40 billion LNG Canada export terminal and $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, the largest private sector investments in Canadian history, are keystones to provincial plans to accelerate natural gas production and export.

In contrast, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who lead traditional matrilineal kinship groups called houses or yikh (pronounced “yuh”), are fighting to preserve ancestral connections to the spirit of the land. “Our people’s belief is that we are part of the land,” Huson stresses. “The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us.”

Before the memorandum was signed, governments negotiated with band officials, who are elected in a colonial system that was imposed on First Nations and that ignores preexisting Indigenous governance structures. But Wet’suwet’en society is traditionally segmented between thirteen yikh, each belonging to one of five matrilineal clans and holding responsibility for distinct territories. Unist’ot’en is the name of the people belonging to the yikh Dark House.

Wet’suwet’en law, as Indigenous legal scholar John Borrows argues in his book Canada’s Indigenous Constitution, recognizes “a fluid relationship between people and animals, and shows the importance of remembering these connections.” In the mid-1920s, a Wet’suwet’en Elder explained the kinship relations that Wet’suwet’en maintain with the land to anthropologist Diamond Jenness: “We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives.”

The lineage of a yikh continually renews its kinship with the animal world in balhats, referred to as potlatches by anthropologists. This is the central legal institution of Wet’suwet’en society, where yikh transfer hereditary titles to future generations and demonstrate their lineages’ continued connection to the spirit of the land. Being on the land itself further connects Wet’suwet’en to their ancestral lineage, providing what Tait describes as “the deep sense of security and connection that comes from having that relationship with the land renewed.”

The government has long sought to disrupt this Wet’suwet’en connection to the land and inculcate the community into settler colonial norms. While the Royal Proclamation of 1763 required that self-appointed authorities negotiate land cession treaties with Indigenous peoples, no historic treaties were negotiated on the British Columbia mainland west of the Rockies. Instead, government agents simply sought to circumscribe Indigenous space to a series of small reserves. In 1927, after Indigenous peoples in the province began organizing to advance land claims in the early twentieth century, the federal government outlawed hiring a lawyer or raising money to pursue those claims.

The Canadian government also outlawed traditional Indigenous governance practices, introducing a potlatch ban in 1885. The creation of the Babine Indian Agency, in 1889, imposed a band governance system on the Wet’suwet’en, modelled on settler village councils. Through the Indian Act, the Canadian government defined band responsibilities to administer member services on reserve, establishing paternalistic oversight structures by federal bureaucrats. As a result of these interventions, there are now six bands with significant Wet’suwet’en membership—Witset, Hagwilget, Nee Tahi Buhn, Skin Tyee, Burns Lake, and Broman Lake. (The latter has renamed itself Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The distinction between this individual band and the collective Wet’suwet’en nation is often confused in news coverage and, in the past, by government officials.)

The government also launched a sustained attack on Wet’suwet’en kinship relations. The Indian Act imposed policies determining band membership and Indian status along the male line, undermining the matrilineal Wet’suwet’en clan system. The residential school system and the foster care system, in which Indigenous children were forcefully taken from their families, sought to disrupt the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and identity.

The Canadian government eventually began to modify some of its most egregious policies. The bans on land claims activity and on the potlatch were lifted in 1951, while legislative changes in 1985 and 2011 partially addressed gender bias in membership provisions. However, the legacy of these policies endures. In this context, the resilience of the traditional governance system is particularly remarkable. And continuing governance practices are what drove the Wet’suwet’en victory last May.

The modern Indigenous rights movement in Canada dates to the late 1960s, when Indigenous communities began going to court to force the government to negotiate contemporary land claims. In 1984, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, in coordination with their Gitxsan neighbours, brought their territorial claim to court in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case. The hereditary chiefs took the stand and explained the Indigenous laws that gave them the authority and responsibility to steward the land in what would become one of the longest court cases in Canadian history, demonstrating the depth and complexity of Wet’suwet’en governance practices. Sharing their legal traditions with the Canadian courts, chiefs explained the crests, songs, and stories that belong to individual yikh as evidence of their connection to the land.

The trial judge recognized the hereditary chiefs’ authority as representatives of their communities’ interest in the land. However, he dismissed the relevance of Indigenous oral histories, songs, and crests, ruling that Aboriginal title was extinguished when BC joined Confederation. The hereditary chiefs appealed the decision, eventually taking the case to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997. The Supreme Court overturned the trial decision, establishing that Aboriginal title was a valid concept in Canadian law and Indigenous traditional knowledge should be considered a form of evidence of it.

But the trial judge’s mishandling of the chiefs’ evidence left the Supreme Court unable to rule on the Wet’suwet’en claim. The court strongly recommended a political solution, meaning the hereditary chiefs would have to deal directly with provincial and federal governments in treaty negotiations.

After the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case, British Columbia established a contemporary treaty process to address unceded Indigenous rights and title by inviting Indigenous peoples to effectively relinquish title to the majority of their lands. Of sixty-five Indigenous groups to participate in treaty talks, only seven have reached a final agreement. (Approximately 40 percent of Indigenous communities never even participated.) Most treaty negotiations in the province have stalled, including talks with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, in part because Indigenous peoples want to maintain a connection to their lands and manage lands according to traditional laws and customs.

Both government and industry have regularly sidestepped the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and negotiated with Indian Act bands, which they appear to perceive as more amenable to resource development. Federal cuts to program funding during Stephen Harper’s administration eroded services on reserve. The province, possibly seeking to take advantage of this situation, provided funding for bands to participate in planning processes to evaluate the benefits a pipeline would bring to their community.

By 2018, five of the six Wet’suwet’en bands had signed agreements with Coastal GasLink and the province to support the pipeline. One reserve community, Hagwilget, supported the hereditary chiefs’ authority over Wet’suwet’en territories and refused to sign on to the pipeline.

The province also partnered with TransCanada and LNG Canada to fund a dissident movement within the hereditary system. In 2017, the government provided $60,000, with matching support from the pipeline, to a group called the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition to engage community members and communicate the economic benefits of resource development. The group was led by three women, two of whom were hereditary chiefs and one from a yikh whose chief had recently died. As described by Darlene Glaim, president of the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition, who at that time held the hereditary title Chief Woos, the group “was formed with the intent to negotiate a benefit agreement . . . with the TransCanada Coastal Gas Link Project.”

The Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition did not effectively foster support for the pipeline among the hereditary chiefs. In 2017, Glaim briefly resigned from the coalition because it “caused much turmoil amongst our people and leadership.” In 2019, the other hereditary chiefs “feathered” some of the principal women involved, notifying them that their activities had violated their responsibilities and tarnished their hereditary titles. Thus shamed, the women were banned from conducting business on behalf of their yikh until they cleansed their names within the balhats. When the arrests of Huson and Tait, among others, triggered national protests, the government was forced to finally engage the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in a meaningful way.

The Memorandum of Understanding does not contain any language related to the Coastal GasLink project. However, the hereditary chiefs effectively leveraged the conflict around the pipeline’s development to finally advance the long-delayed recognition of their title. And, while the MOU does not stand in for a treaty, it does indicate the government’s willingness to negotiate a radically different kind of treaty—one that preserves Indigenous authority over land. With this agreement in place, the hereditary chiefs can now engage their communities in conversations about how they want to approach resource co-management with the province and build more constructive relationships between hereditary and reserve leadership. This means, at least in theory, the government finally recognizes that the hereditary chiefs have a role in managing the territory in the future.

The agreement does not resolve conflict over the pipelines. While protests slowed to a halt, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have pursued their cause in the courts, petitioning for a judicial review of the provincial approval of the Coastal GasLink project. Divisions remain among the Wet’suwet’en: elected band governments have vocally opposed the new framework. Moreover, the industry-backed dissidents, although a minority within the clans, continue to be a vocal source of opposition to the hereditary chiefs.

In the meantime, TC Energy work camps continue to build the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Numbers at the Unist’ot’en camp diminished as people went into lockdown during the pandemic. Industry quickly lobbied for pipeline construction crews to be labelled essential, advancing projects under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis. Last summer, TC Energy resumed construction of the pipeline, which is projected to be in service by 2023.

But the MOU has potentially far-reaching effects. While the Unist’ot’en camp remains a relatively small community in remote northern BC, it has inspired a broader movement to return to traditional relationships to land and territories. The Unist’ot’en yikh has not only led all the clans to publicly declare their opposition to pipelines in the balhats; it has also emboldened the broader environmental movement. As Clayton Thomas-Muller, an Indigenous climate-justice organizer with 350.org, has written, Indigenous peoples are “the keystones in a hemispheric social movement strategy that could end the era of Big Oil and eventually usher in another paradigm from this current destructive age.”

The Unist’ot’en are also inspiring broader conversations about how Indigenous law can provide a foundation where development on Indigenous land, which is considered family by Indigenous peoples, is concerned. Unist’ot’en leaders emphasize that the same land people have been fighting over also has the power to heal. Tait argues that, as people become rooted in their connection to the territory, they can find “the intergenerational strength of our ancestors and everything that they survived.” She argues this provides yikh members with the power to resist extractive developments and uphold their responsibilities.

The struggle on Wet’suwet’en territories was always about more than a pipeline. It was about how we understand the land itself. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ offer to negotiate shared jurisdiction is an invitation for all Canadians to build a more reciprocal relationship to the land, one that can be sustained into the future. In that way, it can be seen not simply as an agreement or a compromise but, instead, as a gift.

Tyler McCreary
Tyler McCreary is based in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is an assistant professor in the department of geography at Florida State University. Born and raised in Smithers, BC, he is the author of Shared Histories and a coeditor of Settler City Limits.
Jerome Turner
Jerome Turner is Gitxsan with Swedish and Scottish ancestry. The stories he covers are mainly to do with where Indigenous peoples and politics intersect. He now resides on unceded Kwikwetlem territory.