This letter is a response to the January 16 “MLA Musings” piece in the Williams Lake Tribune. Notwithstanding the provincial government’s handling of the Wet’suwet’en pipeline blockade earlier this month, I take issue with MLA Donna Barnett’s characterization of the illegality of the Indigenous activists’ blockade of the natural gas pipeline in B.C.’s northwest. The protests may challenge a recent provincial court ruling but they are not unconstitutional. After all, the Charter guarantees the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The BC Supreme Court ruling may have the impact of allowing the Coastal GasLink pipeline to move forward from a provincial perspective, but its failure to account for the consequences of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling, specifically the Delgamuukw v British Columbia SCC case (1997), justifies reasonable opposition. Delgamuukw established the authority of the hereditary chiefs in the Nation’s unceded territory. As legal scholar John Burrows has argued, these cases of Indigenous sovereignty, rooted in natural law, are essential parts of Canada’s legal and judicial fabric, creating our composite constitution.
The work of anthropologist Antonia Mills further corroborates the importance of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en as both legislative and judicial authorities in the Nation. Considering that the company planned infrastructure development on unceded lands, settler authorities would do well to consult with traditional Indigenous authorities in addition to the Indian Act band councils. As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, has argued, band councils may have an electoral system behind them, but that does not derogate the need for free, prior, and informed consent from traditional Indigenous government representatives.
To suggest that activists’ constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms are contrary to the “rule of law” and the “economic progress of our province” is unadulterated sophistry. Who decided that those phrases meant blindly embracing without question an environmentally and financially questionable infrastructure project? We live in interesting times. Let’s not make them more interesting by forgetting the constitution, the supreme law of the land.