The Wet'suwet'en conundrum

As cross-country protests continue, CTV News has an explainer about the difference between hereditary chiefs and elected ones, and their different perspectives on the pipeline project that ignited this powder keg:

Protests across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have prompted questions surrounding the difference between these chiefs and elected band councils — and the answer is complicated.

Essentially, the hereditary chiefs oversee the management of traditional lands and their authority predates the imposed colonial law, which formed the elected band council.

While the band council is in support of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the hereditary chiefs are not.

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Hereditary chiefs represent different houses that make up the First Nation as a whole. Their titles are passed down through generations and predate colonization.

“The hereditary chiefs draw their authority from Wet’suwet’en law, so their law is the law that pre-exists colonization in the territory,” Kim Stanton, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP who specializes in Aboriginal law, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Thursday.

“The hereditary chiefs’ authority is with respect to all of their ancestral lands and those are the lands that they’re seeking to protect.”

In 1997, the Wet’suwet’en people were part of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, which ultimately upheld Indigenous peoples’ land claims to land that had never been ceded through a treaty, which includes Wet’suwet’en Nation and much of British Columbia.

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On the other hand, elected band councils — as the title suggests — are elected members of the community.

These councils were the result of the Indian Act, which was first established in 1876 and defined how the Canadian government interacts with Indigenous people. They were formed to impose a leadership structure that more resembled Canada’s system of governance.

“They don’t have the authority under the Indian Act to make decisions on traditional territory,” Pam Palmater, an Indigenous lawyer and the chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, told CTV’s Power Play on Thursday.

On its surface, this is about a pipeline project. Fundamentally, it’s about whether the traditional Wet’suwet’en lands – and other First Nations’ territories that were never formally ceded by treaty – are under Canadian authority at all. This dispute has barely even started.