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COLUMN: Tradition – as the Prime Minister fiddles

Murdock Alan-col
Columnist Alan Murdock

If one wants to look at the futility of Alberta separating from Canada, we need peer no further than at the recent economic debacle we are struggling with arising from a disputed pipeline placement in the interior of British Columbia. The shutdown of our national rail system is inexcusable.

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation is a First Nations band made up of five clans located outside the Village of Burns Lake in the interior of British Columbia. The Nation has 257 registered members with 85 living on their reserve. It has a Band Council with an elected chief and two councillors as prescribed under the Indian Act of Canada.  Wet’suwet’en band members also recognize 13 of its members as traditional chiefs. No member of Band Council is a traditional chief, nor does any sit on the board of directors of the traditional chief’s Office of the Wet’suwet’en located in Smithers. There is no treaty in force either provincially or federally with the band. To complicate matters further, a treaty is at the later stages of Agreement in Principle between the BC Treaty Commission and the traditional chiefs.  

The Wet’suwet’en traditional chiefs have decided that they weren’t recognized sufficiently, if at all, in the negotiations over where, if anywhere, the pipeline should go through the land area they are negotiating over. Of course, part of the difficulty in determining who is in charge is the jurisdictional areas which the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim to own. (They say they represent 3,160 members with overlapping/shared territories with four other First Nations).

Thus the blockade and who is in charge of what.

In terms of First Nations bands and administration of the Indian Act (annual expenditures of over $6 billion), the Canadian government deals legally with Band Councils as described under that Act. First passed in 1876, and still in force with 30 amendments since, for 614 First Nations bands the Act defines 1) the areas to be set aside for the use and benefits of First Nations residents, including schools, health projects, burial grounds and general welfare, 2) band government (Band Councils) which are charged with administering the land and receiving federal funds and 3) band membership by registration on a federally recognized membership Register. Four powerful amendments have been passed since 1990 which allow opting out of parts of the Act by individual bands for land management, fiscal management, oil and gas and moneys management, and commercial and Industrial management – subject to mutual agreement.

Part of today’s dilemma is the existence of the Indian Act itself. It was unilaterally enacted as the Canadian government’s legal response to the treaties. For some, as appears to be the case for the Wet’suwet’en traditional chiefs, the underlying battle is wanting a treaty to be enacted, so that they can become the legally recognized government and recipient of federal and provincial funds rather than the current Band Council. They have support from other politically power-driven traditional chiefs across the country.

The issue then is not the pipelines; it is First Nations internal political fighting and power struggling with control of billions of Canadian government tax dollars at stake.

Time to move on from 1876. Where is the Assembly of First Nations?

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.