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A Strange Case in Canada

Attorneys Appearing in Court

The rights of Indigenous peoples and the will of the energy industry to construct pipelines have faced off again and again. Readers will likely remember the protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The protests lasted months, and individuals who were non-residents of the reserve joined the protests for a variety of reasons. In the end, the Dakota Access Pipeline was built, and is now operational. Canada’s history with it’s Indigenous peoples is somewhat different from the history of the United States, and a similar protest is occuring there as I write this article, in the province of British Columbia.

The crux of the protests is exactly the same; First Nations people in Canada, specifically the Wet'suwet'en, are worried about the potential environmental impacts the pipeline may have. It should be noted this is an oversimplification; within the Wet'suwet'en territory lies a complex network of different bands and clans. The dispute over whether or not a pipeline can be built through the territory is complex, for a variety of reasons.

The Wet'suwet'en have two groups of leaders, an elected council and hereditary chiefs. The elected council is a relatively new concept, introduced by colonists, while the hereditary chiefs have existed for a long time. The Government of Canada has given some level of authority to the elected council, and with that authority the council approved construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, owned by TransCanada Corporation. The Government of Canada and TransCanada, thinking their obligations to the Wet'suwet'en had been fulfilled, continued on with the construction of the pipeline. They were met by protestors; the hereditary chiefs were against the pipeline, and many people believe that their authority supersedes that of the elected council.

Wet'suwet'en territory is unceded, which means that while it lies within the borders of Canada, it has not technically entered into an agreement to become a part of Canada; no treaties have been signed between the Wet'suwet'en government and the Canadian government. There are actually vast swaths of such territory in Canada, and time will tell what will become of the relationship between the central government, the elected councils, and traditional leadership structures within First Nations territory.

This is all occurring during a time in which the Canadian government, under Justin Trudeau, has committed to strengthening relationships between Indigenous peoples and the government; in part, the government seeks to do this by atoning for the history of colonialism in Canada. During a dispute like this, the complexities of colonial institutions mingling with traditional governments comes to light, and it makes one wonder why the government did not anticipate blowback from the hereditary chiefs. Having an attorney who is in the know; who was a part of the Wet'suwet'en or a band with a similar governing structure is incredibly useful in such a scenario. This extends to any courthouse where you expect complex social, legal and cultural entanglements experienced attorneys for local counsel can help you untangle the web and find solutions that work for all parties.