Talks with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs set for 2nd day in northern B.C.

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en are set to meet for a second day with senior federal and provincial ministers in northwestern B.C. on Friday, as they try to break an impasse in a pipeline dispute that has sparked weeks of protests across the country.

The first round of meetings Thursday were described as preliminary discussions, setting the stage for deeper negotiations on Friday.

“This first day … lays out the groundwork. [On Friday] we’ll get into the heavy discussions,” Hereditary Chief Na’moks told CBC News from Smithers, B.C. on Thursday.

“I expect these to be long days, because they’re getting here late in the game,” he said.

‘A very good start’

Na’Moks is one of several hereditary chiefs who opposes the Coastal GasLink pipeline set to run through traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en. The meetings will discuss the $6.6-billion pipeline project, as well as concern around Indigenous rights to land and title.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser seemed optimistic as they left meetings on Thursday. Discussions wrapped up after about three hours, with Fraser saying the day was productive and the mood in the room was respectful.

Bennett described it as a “very good start.”

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser smile as they leave talks at the Wet’suwet’en offices in B.C. on Feb. 27. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Na’moks left Wet’suwet’en offices without making a statement, but told CBC that the issues at the heart of the discussions go far beyond a single pipeline project.

“We’ve seen what’s happening across Canada and we have more than a willingness for that to cease, but there has to be some positive, progressive changes — and we’re talking about the relationship between all Indigenous people and Canada and British Columbia and each of the provinces themselves,” said Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale. “That’s the goal here.”

Hereditary Chief Na’Moks said Thursday’s talks laid the groundwork for heavier discussions on Friday. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Fraser said it would be inappropriate to share details of what was discussed Thursday.

“We don’t want to jeopardize anything,” he said. “We had a productive day today and we’re hoping for a very solid day [Friday], too.”

Both the RCMP and Coastal GasLink have agreed to conditions requested by the chiefs to allow the discussions to progress.

No RCMP patrols

Mounties ended patrols along the Morice River Service Road, a critical roadway, while negotiations unfold. The natural gas company agreed to a two-day pause on construction in the area in a similar vein.

Construction work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline is underway along the Morice Forest Service Road, near Smithers, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The hereditary chiefs’ opposition to a natural gas pipeline cutting across their traditional territory, coupled with their efforts to limit police presence on their lands, have sparked shows of support across the country, which have halted rail service for the past three weeks.

The dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project began months ago, but tensions rose on Dec. 31, when the B.C. Supreme Court granted TC Energy an injunction calling for the removal of any obstructions from roads, bridges or work sites it has been authorized to use in Wet’suwet’en territory.

The RCMP moved in to enforce that injunction on Feb. 6. Hours later, protesters started holding up railway traffic outside of Belleville, Ont., in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, thwarting freight and passenger rail travel.