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Who are the protesters? 'There's a lot of people that aren't from these communities, that aren't Aboriginal'

The Eaton Centre shopping mall on the day that the province of Ontario declared a state of emergency as the number of novel coronavirus cases continued to grow in Toronto.
The Eaton Centre shopping mall on the day that the province of Ontario declared a state of emergency as the number of novel coronavirus cases continued to grow in Toronto.

Protesters standing in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are only inflaming an already intense situation, and have disregarded the years of consultations conducted with First Nations along the pipeline route, says Ellis Ross, who served for 14 years on one of the 20 elected band councils that signed an agreement with Coastal GasLink.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t from these communities, that aren’t Aboriginal, that are saying hereditary leadership has full authority, and they’re not doing it based on any facts. It would be like me saying that the elected leadership of B.C. and Canada has no authority, and it’s the Queen who has all authority,” said Ross, now the Liberal MLA for Skeena, B.C. “That would be a very destabilizing remark to make. It’s a very irresponsible remark to make.”

Five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have claimed they have title to a vast 22,000-square-kilometre area, about four times the size of Prince Edward Island, and that the elected chiefs only have authority over reserve lands. Ross questioned the validity of this point of view given that Aboriginal title belongs to Indigenous communities and is not held by any specific individual or group.

“A lot of what I see out there right now, from these people talking about it, is basically opinion. It’s not fact,” he said, adding that nobody has ever proved that elected chiefs have authority only over reserves. “In fact, in the Indian Act band councils are legally authorized to sign agreements and contracts on behalf of the communities.”

But anti-pipeline protesters have not acknowledged this grey area, he said, or the five years of consultations.

“It inflames the situation, and I think that’s what the point is for all these people who are talking like this — Natives and non-Natives alike. They just want to heighten the situation that’s facing us today. And these communities don’t need their issues escalated,” Ellis said. “I’m not sure they are aware of it, but they have the potential to tear these communities apart — right down to family and friends.”

For some in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, the solidarity protests are getting out of hand.

Andrew George, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and wing chief of the Gidimt’en, told APTN on Tuesday that Wet’suwet’en Elders are worried about the escalating demonstrations across Canada.

“What currently is going on does not reflect the true governance of the Wet’suwet’en – on both sides,” he said, adding that he is particularly concerned about young people blocking trains and chaining themselves to police cars. “When you look at what’s happening with the youth, it’s spreading like wildfire, but there’s no control.”

He called for a rare all-clans meeting to address the issue.

“We are afraid something bad might happen,” George said, adding it’s up to the Wet’suwet’en Nation to take charge.

Meanwhile, one of those solidarity protests resulted in a backlash against a First Nations community that was not even involved in the demonstration.

The K’omoks First Nation on Vancouver Island issued a statement clarifying that it had nothing to do with a blockade on Highway 19 on Monday after racist comments were aimed at the community on social media.

“K’omoks First Nation was never contacted or advised of this event, and we are disappointed that our name was unknowingly used. This event was organized by non-Indigenous Comox Valley residents who aren’t connected to our territory in the same way as K’omoks, and in no way represent K’omoks or our values,” K’omoks First Nation Chief Nicole Rempel said in a statement.

She told the National Post in an interview that she believes that people should have the right to protest whatever they want, but that a certain protocol should be followed.

“If you’re in a Nation’s territory, you really should be engaging with the First Nation,” she said.

In a statement sent on Tuesday to Chek News, the protest organizers had claimed to have support of the First Nation.

“We, a group of concerned residents defending our home in the K’omoks Territory with the aid of some K’omoks Nation people blockaded Highway 19,” said the statement from Extinction Rebellion Nanaimo. Extinction Rebellion is an international movement that says it “uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” The group said that it supported the protest, but the demonstration was not an official Extinction Rebellion event.

Ross, who was chief councillor for the Haisla First Nation from 2013 to 2017, said the benefits of this project to his community are too many to count.

He was on the council when talks began about the LNG pipeline and he ran to become an MLA to “help get LNG across the finish line.”

“The real goal was to get individuals off depending on band councils for welfare, or houses, or jobs. And the other point was to get councils off the dependency of government funding from Ottawa and in my community, we achieved that,” he said.

“They’re trying to paint a picture that if the pipeline goes through, our culture of living in wigwams or long houses will get destroyed,” Ross said. “That is not what my community looks like. Nobody in the last 15 years has come into my office and started crying about how the culture is going to be destroyed.”

People come to his office because they are concerned they don’t have enough money, he said.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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