How a historic B.C. land rights case underscores Wet’suwet’en protests

B.C. Premier John Horgan raised his voice over jeers and fist-banging recently in question period after members of the Opposition Liberals criticized his government’s handling of the clash between Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs and a pipeline company.

Horgan told the legislature that the unresolved rights being asserted by the chiefs were around long before his government took power 2 1/2 years ago.

“These issues have been percolating for generations — generations,” he said.

While 20 elected First Nations councils have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink over its natural gas pipeline, the clan chiefs say the pipeline has no authority to run 190 kilometres through their traditional territory without consent.

The conflict that began in a remote area of northern British Columbia has erupted across the country, with protests and rail blockades in solidarity with the clan chiefs. The chiefs claim that while elected councils administer smaller reserves, hereditary chiefs are the true authority over 22,000 square kilometres of land.

The provincial government has long struggled with how to handle land claims in the province — where most First Nations haven’t signed treaties — and documents released under freedom of information show it has often taken an approach that prioritized creating “certainty” for natural resource projects to proceed, a researcher and a lawyer say.

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