Female hereditary chiefs who are fighting for the future of their people share their stories in harrowing court documents. Journalist Grant Warkentin looks at the situation for Resource Works.
Three independently-minded female Wet’suwet’en leaders have had enough of the attacks from a small group of activist-backed men, who claimed this spring to have “stripped” the hereditary chief titles given to the women by their families decades ago.
Now, the women are fighting back in court.
After years of mistreatment in their home communities, Theresa Tait-Day, Gloria George, and Darlene Glaim are speaking up, with powerful statements and stories about how they have been “unpersoned” 1984-style for merely trying to follow the will of their people. The experience has been traumatic for them, they say, describing how they have been shunned, insulted, demeaned, marginalized, and met with hostility for years ever since they decided to support a natural gas pipeline connecting Peace River country gas fields with Kitimat’s port, passing through their territory in the middle of northern BC.
The women provided sworn affidavits to support TC Energy Corp’s Coastal GasLink pipeline project, which was in court this week to ask the judge to extend an injunction preventing activists from harassing and impeding pipeline construction workers this summer.
They say a few male hereditary chiefs, propped up by activists intent on stopping the pipeline, had no authority to take away any of their hereditary titles. The female chiefs provided the court with details showing how the Wet’suwet’en political and cultural system functions, and why they cannot be “stripped” of their titles.
The Wet’suwet’en is made up of five First Nations, with a collective registered population of nearly 3,500 people. Each nation has an elected Chief and council. The Wet’suwet’en people are also represented through their traditional hereditary system of five clans, each with three houses who are led by multiple hereditary leaders, or House Chiefs.
Activist-backed chiefs acted against own traditions
“House Chief titles are held for life and after the death of the holder are passed to someone in the matrilineage,” said Gloria George, who is Smogelgem, the head hereditary chief (House Chief) of the Wet’suwet’en’s Sun House. “Titles are only removed in the most extreme scenarios such as murder… we are not ‘stripped’ like bark off a tree.”
George was given her House Chief title at a ceremony in 2009. She says the actions of the male chiefs goes against the traditions and protocols of the Wet’suwet’en system for feasts and granting titles, which are an important part of the First Nation’s political system for governing and managing its diverse Clans and Houses.
“When a severe action such as stripping a name is contemplated, we would have to discuss it in our house and with other houses at length. We would make sure we had input from the entire house and other clans especially the father and grandfather clans. We would make sure that we kept everyone informed of the decisions as we went along.
“In all my life I have never heard of anyone being legitimately stripped of their hereditary name,” she said.
It was inappropriate, agreed Darlene Glaim, who is Woos, head House Chief of Grizzly House.
“Matters related to a house should never be discussed at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en which is meant to conduct administrative tasks for the Wet’suwet’en,” she said. “House Chiefs from outside a house cannot just take another House Chief’s name. Each name is connected to a house territory so it is not appropriate for other House Chiefs to get involved in such a manner.”
Punished for seeking consensus
The female chiefs came under attack shortly after they created the Wet’suwet’en Matrilinear Coalition (WMC) in 2015. They created the WMC after it became clear there was a political division between the Office of the Wet’suwet’en representing hereditary chiefs, and the elected chiefs and councils representing the nation’s five different bands.
“We identified that there was no process for us to make decisions as a collective nation,” said Theresa Tait-Day, who is Wi-hali-iyte, a hereditary chief in her clan. “A few House Chiefs cannot make decisions for our nation. Everyone in our nation is equal and has a voice that deserves to be heard.”
Tait-Day said the WMC was formed to co-ordinate and facilitate economic development and to share information with all Wet-suwet’en members, regardless of whether they live on or off reserve lands. It was not intended to make decisions, but to make sure everyone had access to the same information.
“The goals of the WMC include setting up a process in which the Wet’suwet’en house groups can consider projects in their territories and negotiate agreements regarding those projects in a manner that reflects and supports Wet’suwet’en peoples’ matrilinear system, cultural values, governance… and well-being of the Wet’suwet’en people,” she said. “It is not a hierarchical structure and does not take away from our traditional governance structure or make decisions on behalf of a house. It is meant to bring the Wet’suwet’en nation together to facilitate engagement and decision-making.”
In 2016, the WMC held a major information event in Houston, BC which included reps from the oil and gas industry, Coastal GasLink, and the BC government. All Wet’suwet’en members were invited to attend to learn about the proposed pipeline project over several days. However, apparently threatened by the WMC, some house chiefs (including the group that would later attempt to strip the women of their titles) were disruptive.
“A few House chiefs… and a few others interrupted the meeting to deliver a message in opposition to the WMC and the project,” Tait-Day said. “They did not stay after their interruption to learn more about the event or participate.”
In contrast, most members of the Wet’suwet’en nation were supportive of the project.
“The community members directed us to continue the work we were doing, to identify potential benefits from Coastal GasLink and to consider potential decision-making processes for the nation,” Tait-Day said.
Still fighting for their people
Despite the terrible ordeal the female chiefs have endured, they are still fighting for the well-being of all their people. They are speaking up for other members who can’t speak publicly.
“I estimate that a large majority of our nation supports the project,” said Tait-Day, describing how most people are excited about job training and opportunities the pipeline will bring. “Some of these people have also told me that they are afraid to publicly say that they support the project because they are afraid of being bullied or ostracized for their opinions by those who oppose the project.”
Disagreement is one thing, but bullying and shaming people must stop, she said.
“I understand that there are people in our community who do not support the project, including some hereditary chiefs,” she said. “It is because of this division in perspectives that I am committed to working with the WMC to help bring our community together to establish a decision-making process to help our community make decisions about projects in Wet’suwet’en territory.
“I hope the community can work together for the benefit of our nation’s members, wherever they reside,” she concluded.
Court decision expected soon
The court has not yet made a decision whether or not to extend the injunction requested by Coastal GasLink.
The court granted an interim injunction in December against protesters who have been blockading Coastal GasLink workers from reaching their job sites and harassing them on the job. Now, the company is back in court this week to extend the injunction through the summer construction season.
The company says the application would allow the directive to remain in place without a time limit, ensuring “continued safe and unimpeded access” to the site.
TC Energy Corp, which owns and operates the Coastal GasLink project, has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink route; however, seven male hereditary house chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation claim the project has no authority without their consent.