Wet’suwet’en and the Right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent

Encourage governments to embody the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in their relationships with Indigenous Peoples.
Photo of police and protesters at Wet'suwet'en First Nation, BC
RCMP officers on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory
Michael Toleando

Until this country is willing to listen to their own Supreme Court and recognize hereditary rights and title, these unresolved issues will continue to end in confrontation. The only way forward is for government and industry to follow the principles of UNDRIP and to work with both hereditary and elected leadership. But as long as they are willing to resort to force instead of diplomacy, we haven’t even begun to engage in meaningful reconciliation.
Cary Newman[1]

A conflict over who has the right to make decisions about energy projects on traditional territories has taken a series of rapid turns, reverberating across the country from the locus point of northern British Columbia. It has revealed, at many levels, how settler society fails to understand and accept the Indigenous right to self-determination. It demonstrates an acceptance of unbalanced power relationships, and once again calls into question Canada’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

On December 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued an injunction ordering Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and supporters to cease denying Coastal GasLine (CGL) access to their territory. CGL plans to build a liquefied natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

While Wet’suwet’en First Nation had given its approval to the CGL project, the hereditary chiefs of its five clans had not. Citing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they maintain that their right to free, prior, and informed consent was not being honoured.

The significance of this may be difficult for non-Indigenous people to comprehend. After all, elected Chiefs and Council made a decision. However, under the terms of the Indian Act, Chief and Council only have jurisdiction over lands on reserve—not on the entirety of the traditional territory.

Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and representative of Reconciliation Canada, has stated of the situation:

There are differences of opinion between elected leadership and hereditary leadership from time to time, and mostly when it comes to resource development that likely has impacts on the environment.

It’s during these times that hereditary chiefs assume their responsibility over the lands that are spoken about.[2]

He also noted that governments and corporations understand there can be friction between hereditary and elected chiefs and sometimes “use that as a tool to create the kind of divisions that fracture relationships.”

Settler Canada often refers to traditional or “unceded” territory as “Crown land.” But Canadian courts, from the Delgamuukw decision of 1991 to the Tŝilhqot'in decision of 2014, have found that Aboriginal title to these lands still exists. Delgamuukw ruled in favour of hereditary chiefs that Aboriginal title had not been extinguished on Wet’suwet’en territory.[3] Aboriginal title is also enshrined in section 35 of the Constitution.

On January 7, 2019, the RCMP, highly armed and in tactical gear, moved in to take down the barricades and arrested 14 demonstrators. Indigenous leaders across the country questioned how such action could be squared with Prime Minister Trudeau’s frequently quoted statement that no relationship is more important to his government than that between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Ojibwe broadcaster and advocate Jesse Wente noted that “reconciliation does not come at the end of a gun.” Actions of solidarity by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples continue to take place across the country. Some First Nations people who support pipeline development have stood up in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, arguing that they have the right to resist without being met with violence.[4]

After several days of negotiation, the hereditary chiefs reached an agreement with the RCMP to give CGL what Tsayu Clan Chief Namoks called “soft access” to the territory. The hereditary chiefs have made it clear that their agreement is with the RCMP; it is not an agreement with CGL to allow pipeline development.[5]

The situation on Wet’suwet’en territory thus remains unresolved, as do other development issues on unceded and treaty land across the country. How we, as a country, respond to them will speak volumes about our commitment to reconciliation, to living together as settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada. As Moderator Richard Bott has written in his prayer for Wet’suwet’en, “We speak, God of all Creation—but are they just pretty words?” He urges us to “open our hearts with truth to the fact that these actions give lie to our words.”

The United Church of Canada is committed to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which holds that Indigenous Peoples have the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any development occurs on their territory. We believe this must be fully respected on Wet’suwet’en land, and on all Indigenous territory in Canada.

The church is also committed to the peaceful resolution of conflict. Armed, militarized police confrontation is not peaceful. Indeed, it brings back harsh reminders of confrontations such as Oka and Ipperwash, which highlighted the historic, ongoing power imbalance between settler and Indigenous peoples. Oka, for example, led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a landmark event whose recommendations were never taken seriously. The act of militarized policing on Wet’suwet’en lands understandably raises the concern that the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be similarly discarded.


1. CBC News, January 11, 2019.
2. Maclean’s, January 9, 2019.
3. Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, [1997] 3 S.C.R. 1010, Judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada; Delgamuukw Case, The Canadian Encyclopedia.
4. CBC News, January 8, 2019; APTN News, January 11, 2019.
5. The Star Vancouver, January 9, 2019; January 10, 2019.

What Can You Do?

Not just in the Wet’suwet’en case but in all cases where economic development comes into conflict with Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination and to free, prior, and informed consent, please take the time to:

  • THINK about the situation. Are all the voices that should be heard being heard? Are we seeking solutions through structures imposed on Indigenous Peoples by settler governments, or are we supporting self-determination?
  • PRAY for resolutions that are achieved peacefully, and are life-affirming. You can begin with the Moderator’s Prayer for Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
  • ACT to encourage governments to embody the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in their relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Contact the Prime Minister, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Premier of British Columbia. You can use Moderator Bott’s letter as a guideline. Please also cc Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice Animator Sara Stratton.

Send your letters and e-mails to:

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0A6
pm [at] pm.gc.ca

The Honourable Carolyn Bennett
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0A6
aadnc.minister.aandc [at] canada.ca

The Honourable John Horgan
Premier of British Columbia
West Annex Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC  V8V 1X4
john.horgan.mla [at] leg.bc.ca

Send copies of your letters and e-mails to:

Sara StrattonReconciliation and Indigenous Justice AnimatorSStratton [at] united-church.ca416-231-7680 ext. 2742
1-800-268-3781 ext. 2742


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