Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station at kilometre 39, just outside of Gidimt’en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. The Wet’suwet’en peoples are occupying their land and trying to prevent a pipeline from going through it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline set up a support station at kilometre 39, just outside of Gidimt’en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Wednesday January 8, 2020. The Wet’suwet’en peoples are occupying their land and trying to prevent a pipeline from going through it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Calls for dialogue as Coastal GasLink pipeline polarizes some in northern B.C.

Coastal GasLink is building the 670-kilometre pipeline from British Columbia’s northeast to Kitimat on the coast

A natural gas pipeline project has polarized many communities across northern B.C. in a dispute a Wet’suwet’en elder says he hopes will be resolved through dialogue.

Russell Tiljoe, 83, has long-established ties with the First Nation whose hereditary clan chiefs say the Coastal GasLink project has no authority to run through its 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory without their consent.

His own late father was one of the clan chiefs, but Tiljoe is not a hereditary chief because he said the governance system is traced through the female family line.

“I’m honestly sitting in the middle and not taking sides,” Tiljoe said in an interview from Houston, the nearest town to a Coastal GasLink site at the centre of the dispute.

Coastal GasLink is building the 670-kilometre pipeline from British Columbia’s northeast to Kitimat on the coast. The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along its path, but the hereditary clan chiefs who are leaders under the traditional form of governance say the project has no authority without their consent.

Last year, the conflict inspired rallies across the country when RCMP enforced an injunction and arrested 14 supporters of the hereditary chiefs who blocked access to a logging road leading to the work site on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

ALSO READ: B.C. Green Party interim leader to visit Wet’suwet’en camps

The B.C. Supreme Court expanded the injunction Dec. 31 and the hereditary clan chiefs responded with an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink, leading to a new standoff.

Tiljoe said he hopes the dispute doesn’t come down to a physical confrontation and that it can be resolved through dialogue between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs and the provincial government, as well as between the hereditary chiefs and those who are elected to administer reserves.

“It may take a long time to be able to come to a consensus agreement, but it is there, we just have to find it,” he said.

Tiljoe said the project has created some tension in the community. Four years ago, he said he spoke in favour of considering the potential economic benefits of the project at a meeting in the feast hall, where Wet’suwet’en decisions are made under the traditional governance structure.

“Since then, there are a lot of people who will have nothing to do with me. If I’m not against it, then I’m for it, the way they see it,” he said.

The hereditary clan chiefs have made it clear they will never support the project. At the other end of the spectrum, Premier John Horgan declared this week that the provincially permitted project will be built, and the rule of law must prevail.

Everyone, from the chiefs to the company and the RCMP talk about their commitment to dialogue, but so far dialogue hasn’t solved the impasse.

Na’moks, a spokesman for the hereditary clan chiefs who also goes by John Ridsdale, suggested that expecting full agreement within any community is unrealistic, just as it is at any other level of government.

“Why do you think there are three elected parties, do you think they all get along?”

Still, he said the number of Wet’suwet’en members who support the project is “quite small and limited,” compared with local opponents.

Coastal GasLink says the hereditary clan chiefs have not responded to requests to meet, while Na’moks has said the chief will only meet with leaders in the provincial and federal governments.

The project has also divided non-Indigenous neighbours of the Wet’suwet’en and local leaders are being cautious about how they talk about the project.

Local MLA Doug Donaldson declined an interview request, deferring to Horgan’s comments.

New Democrat MP Taylor Bachrach, who represents the sprawling northwest corner of the province including the area of dispute as well as several communities that support it, would not say if he supports the pipeline or opposes it.

“This is a really difficult and divisive issue for our communities and our region,” he said, adding his focus is on safety and encouraging open communication.

Bachrach said he’s hopeful disagreements, like how RCMP operate in the area, can be resolved through negotiation.

“At the same time, there are big unanswered questions at the heart of this issue, and I don’t think those larger questions are likely to be answered in the coming days.”

Since Bachrach made those comments, RCMP set up a checkpoint with a stated intention to prevent the dispute on the road from escalating, but the checkpoint itself has become the subject of a complaint by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association after two people were denied entry.

Gladys Atrill, the acting mayor of Smithers, a town about 45 minutes from the entrance to the logging road, said council is also not taking a position on the project, although it has a good working relationship with the hereditary chiefs whose office is their town.

She said some members of the community are employed by Coastal GasLink or its contractors but couldn’t say if the division of opinion lands for or against the pipeline. There are strong views on either side but also a “milieu of people in the middle,” and she believes the majority of people are most concerned about safety, Atrill added.

“Smithers is a diverse community. It’s a huge strength in community but of course it means people see things differently.”

Atrill said she hopes those directly involved in the conflict “hold fast, be cautious,” and remember that safety is primary.

“I would rather we take a little more time than do something we might regret,” she said.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coastal GasLink

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Heavy flows of water pooled on Davis Road after a lead to a fire hydrant burst on Thursday Jan. 21. (Jim Tredwell photo)
Fire hydrant connection burst at Davis Road and Battie Drive

Crews worked well into the night on Thursday Jan. 21 to staunch the flow of water

A pedestrian was transported to hospital after being struck while crossing Roberts Street. (Cole Schisler photo)
Pedestrian struck crossing Roberts Street

The driver remained on scene and is cooperating with police

Emergency crews were called to a semi-truck crash along the Trans-Canada Highway at Oyster Sto’Lo Road on Friday, Jan. 22. (Cole Schisler/Black Press)
Semi truck crashes off the side of the highway in Ladysmith

Driver taken to hospital as precaution after single-vehicle crash Friday

Dog owners, from left, Marlyn Briggs with Nayla, Marjory Sutherland with Effie and Mick, and Christina Godbolt with Conon walk their pets frequently at the Chemainus Ball Park but are growing increasingly concerned about drugs being found discarded in the area. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Puppy rushed to emergency 3 times after ingesting drugs in Vancouver Island public spaces

Dog owners walking in Chemainus parks urged to take caution

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

The sky above Mt. Benson in Nanaimo is illuminated by flares as search and rescuers help an injured hiker down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Search and Rescue)
Search plane lights up Nanaimo mountain with flares during icy rope rescue

Rescuers got injured hiker down Mt. Benson to a waiting ambulance Saturday night

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Nanaimo hospital

Two staff members and one patient have tested positive, all on the same floor

Most Read