As blockader aggression intensifies, Josiah Haynes takes readers back to the surprising story that led three Wet'suwet'en women to speak out.
Acting hereditary house chief Wi'hali'yte (Theresa Tait Day) of Laksilyu (Small Frog) clan. Photo from The Prince George Citizen.
Canadians turn their eyes north as protests in Wet'suwet'en territory once again make national headlines.
For many, it's been a long time since they've thought of Coastal GasLink's (CGL) natural gas pipeline and the events that led to the tumultuous national blockades of early 2020. But as popular outlets rush to cover recent dramatic events and leading personalities pose for cameras, voices from the Wet'suwet'en community whisper of a culture of fear and intimidation.
If you listen carefully, you hear the persuasive story of three women who spoke out and later discovered the consequences.
Years had passed since, in 2012, CGL began consulting Indigenous governments and communities, including the Wet'suwet'en. By then, most other nations had signed generous benefit agreements with the company. Millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs were on the table, in a place where opportunities are scarce and poverty persists.
The broad Wet’suwet’en community was cautious. They wanted the opportunity to provide for their families, grow their community, and reduce dependency on the distant provincial and federal governments. But they also wanted to make sure that the natural environment was protected.
The five elected band councils, distinct from the Office of the Wet'suwet'en (OW) or the hereditary system, all gradually signed agreements with CGL. Votes were held in many communities specifically on agreements. Band elections occurred, in many cases electing councils that ended up supporting the project. The membership numbers of the bands, administered in accordance with the Indian Act, vary, although the overlap is extensive between people that consider themselves Wet'suwet'en and those who are registered band members.
Meanwhile, CGL's offers to meet with the OW, a not-for-profit run by Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs since 1994, were continually ignored.
Seeing the OW's unwillingness to talk to Coastal GasLink, many community members, including elders and hereditary chiefs, felt the need to take matters into their own hands.
"So as a result of that, we formulated the Wet'suwet'en Matrilineal Coalition (WMC)," says Wi'hali'yte, also known as Theresa Tait Day. Tait Day is the acting hereditary house chief for Small Frog clan, having been designated by the former house chief, Frank Patrick.
"The Coalition is made up of five hereditary chiefs, four house chiefs and myself as a hereditary," she said. "And we started to negotiate with Coastal Gas because negotiations fell down with Office of the Wet'suwet'en."
The resulting conflict between the OW and WMC took an unprecedented direction when the OW male chiefs publicly shamed the women, feathered Tait Day, and attempted to strip George and Glaim of their titles.
"The men didn't really like that idea of us women going over there and talking to these guys," said Tait Day.
The women dispute the legitimacy of OW's actions.
Gloria George, or Smogelgem, the disputed House Chief of Tsalyex (Sun House).
Tait Day said: "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."
“House Chief titles are held for life and after the death of the holder are passed to someone in the matrilineage,” said Gloria George, or Smogelgem, the head hereditary chief (House Chief) of Sun House. “Titles are only removed in the most extreme scenarios such as murder".
The shaming of these women is particularly surprising given their championing of First Nations, including their own community. For ten years, Tait Day worked for the Legal Services Society of BC, starting as a paralegal and rising to become the Director of Native Programs Branch. She received legal training throughout those 10 years and even served on the equality rights panel for the Court Challenges Program of Canada. More recently, she served on the steering committee to establish the First Nations Major Project Coalition where she continues to advocate for economic self-determination for First Nations.
“I believe our people feel it’s necessary to have an equity stake in projects and to set the environmental standards," said Tait Day. "Our people cannot continue to live on welfare. We must benefit from our lands and resources. In a substantial way and not just through impact benefit agreements.”
Similarly, George's career has been one of remarkable and long-running advocacy for First Nations, leading her to become a commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and then the British Columbia Human Rights Commission. When she became president of the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), George was the first woman elected leader in a major Indigenous political organization.
Now, decades later, a man named Warner Naziel, aligned with the OW and the blockaders, claims George's House Chief title, Smogelgem, for himself. Yet, by his own admission, Naziel's connection to Tsalyex (Sun House) is not entirely obvious, especially compared to his affiliation with Owl House, where his uncle is chief.
It's not as if George and Glaim's claim to their titles was already in question. Back in 2011, the OW recognized George (and fellow WMC leader Darlene Glaim) as hereditary chiefs. At the time, they joined their fellow hereditaries in opposition to Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project. It appears that the OW only questioned the women's titles when they joined the WMC and began considering CGL's natural gas pipeline.
If the women's credentials are unassailable, the question is whether or not the OW has the authority to choose chiefs for the houses and clans.
OW acted inappropriately, said Glaim, known as 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.”
Even if they did have the authority, Tait Day says the anti-development chiefs broke Wet’suwet’en law in how they attempted to take away George and Glaim's titles:
“What they say they have done to Gloria and Darlene was never actually done, technically. In fact, in our culture, it is illegal to hurt any member of your own family, especially in the feast hall. If they do this in the feast system, as they say they did, the law is that they also lose their name as well. That’s why it is never done. What was done to Gloria and Darlene was an illegal act on the part of the male chief protesters,” she said.
Gloria George and Darlene Glaim held the titles Smogelgem and Woos until they supported the pipeline. Then, an anti-development faction of chiefs unilaterally appointed Naziel and Frank Alec to replace them.
Regardless of whether the man claiming to replace Glaim (Frank Alec) follows her in the hereditary succession of Grizzly House, if the OW does not have the authority, under traditional Wet'suwet'en law, to remove Glaim from leadership, then Alec does not have the right to assume the name "Woos." Certainly, he would not have the authority to invite professional agitators from central Canada to lead the renewed blockades on Morice River. Those agitators, it should be recognized, jeopardized the safety of over 500 workers when they used stolen machinery to destroy the only road out of the workers' lodge as food, water, and medical supplies ran low.
Corey Jocko of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, intimidating a CGL employee.
Many members of the Wet'suwet'en community have a deep appreciation for the hereditary system and concern for its integrity. But the story of the WMC raises questions. Have the actions of these OW affiliated chiefs represented the hereditary system with honour? And is there a reason why public shaming appears to be reserved for dissenting women, specifically?
Josiah Haynes is Resource Works' research and communications coordinator. Resource Works is committed to fact-based dialogue. To report an error, please email Josiah at [email protected].