Female hereditary chiefs challenge Wet’suwet’en MOU

Female Wet’suwet’en chiefs who were stripped of their hereditary titles by male chiefs are challenging the federal and provincial governments’ signing of a rights and title agreement with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and launching complaints with provincial and federal human rights commissions.

The Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition’s challenge goes to the heart of a thorny question for governments and the courts: Who, according to custom, rightfully holds hereditary titles?

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The answer to that is important because, according to previous court rulings, hereditary chiefs have the right to represent their people in rights and title disputes and negotiations.

Division occurred within the Wet’suwet’en over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.

Elected band councils belonging to the Wet’suwet’en support the project and signed benefits agreements.

A number of hereditary chiefs opposed the project, however, and supported a blockade that succeeded in forcing the provincial and federal governments to the negotiation table to hammer out an agreement – a memorandum of understanding (MOU) -- that recognizes Wet’suwet’en rights and title to their traditional territory.

But female chiefs with the Matrilineal Coalition, who supported the pipeline project, are now challenging the MOU and the authority of chiefs with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en to sign it.

“The Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition believes both levels of government were aware of the risk that the Wet’suwet’en signatories did not have proper authority to sign the MOU,” two female hereditary chiefs say in a press release.

They have written the provincial and federal governments challenging the MOU and have launched complaints with both the B.C. and Canadian Human Rights Commissions.

They say proper Wet’suwet’en custom with respect to the conferring of hereditary titles were breached when chiefs with the Office of the Wet’suwt’en (OW) negotiated the MOU with provincial and federal cabinet ministers.

Some of the female hereditary chiefs with the matrilineal coalition were stripped of their hereditary titles by male chiefs, who then gave those titles to men who opposed the pipeline project.

The matrilineal coalition challenges the validity of the titles of some of the hereditary chiefs who opposed the pipeline project and negotiated with the provincial and federal governments on the MOU.

“The way in which governments and the OW have disrespected our governance structures - especially as it relates to female leaders – is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand,” Theresa Tait Day, who claims the title of Chief Wihaliy’te, and is director of the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition, said in a press release.

“The time has come for a comprehensive and inclusive review of Wet’suwet’en governance. This time our women must be part of it.”

“Our House system is core to the Wet’suwet’en way of life,” said Gloria George, who claims the hereditary house chief title Smogelgem – a title also claimed by Warner Naziel. “Governments cannot just turn a blind eye when Wet’suwet’en laws and customs are not respected.”

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