R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That word “respect” has come up at all of the community hearings that we’ve had. In her opening remarks on the fifth day of review hearings for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline on Jan. 17 in Burns Lake, B.C., Sheila Leggett, the Joint Review Panel (JRP) Chair, noted how the word respect had been repeated in each community they visited.

However, Leggett’s remarks, focusing on the need for the presenters “providing oral evidence to be respectful of all parties involved in this proceeding in their evidence,” inverted the meaning of the term respect. While Haisla, Tsimshian, and Wet’suwet’en presenters had spoken of the need for the government and industry to respect for their traditional laws, Leggett employed the term as a thinly veiled criticism of First Nations refusal to bound their comments to accepted “Oral Traditional Knowledge” and government timelines.

On the morning of the 16th, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs had opened the meeting by singing a song composed for the hearing. The song expressed the depth of their connection to their territory, the chorus “noh’ y’in tah way atsaan tsun” translated to “our territory is our livelihood.” But the song also clearly expressed their opposition to the pipeline, closing with the line, “Enbridge noh’ y’in tah wagga way sow’ ye’h” (Enbridge don’t step onto our land).

Prior to the hearings in Burns Lake on the 17th, representatives of the National Energy Board organizing the review panel indicated that they did not want the Wet’suwet’en chiefs to open with an anti-Enbridge song again. While the review panel presumably considered this prerequisite respect for Enbridge, dictating the terms of traditional opening ceremonies to Wet’suwet’en chiefs on Wet’suwet’en land disrespected those chiefs and their authority.

There was a buzz amongst the hereditary chiefs about the gall of the government folk who sought to dictate proceedings on Wet’suwet’en land. The chiefs, however, did not cede control of the opening. The panel was convened to hear their testimony, and would begin in accordance with their process. The chiefs paraded into the room in full regalia, assembled before the crowd, and again performed their oppositional anthem.

While the details of this performance were conveniently quieted in the official record, which only recorded this demonstration as the “Opening Ceremony,” numerous cameras and cell phones captured events and the words and images of Wet’suwet’en protest circulated through social media.

The official record began with hereditary chief Frank Alec describing the final portion of the opening ceremony, the rattle cry. He describes how this rattle performance “signifies the start of serious business of talking straight and talking in an appropriate manner.” He indicated that invocation of the rattle, as well as the feather, “means whatever that has been spoken about, that whatever that is mentioned needs to be listened to.”

The chiefs spoke seriously, detailing not only their traditional use of the territories but also the system of traditional jurisdiction they used to govern the use of the land. Wet’suwet’en society, like their Nat’oot’en and Gitxsan neighbours, is traditionally organized into clans. Within each clan are a number of houses, based on small groups of extended families, each headed by a hereditary chief.

Each house possesses its own territories. The hereditary chiefs are responsible for managing the wise use of their territories. These chiefly titles and responsibilities pass down the generations. The succession of chiefs’ names and their associated territorial rights and responsibilities is enacted through the balhats, a feast system often referred to as the potlatch in English. With authority based in the feast hall, the hereditary chiefs work to ensure the continuation of their traditions into the future, protecting their territories and grooming future generations of leaders.

David deWit, a Wet’suwet’en member of the Tsekalbaiyex (House on Top of a Flat Rock) of the Laksilyu (Little Frog Clan), stated, “our laws, are based on principles such as wiggus, respect for all living beings, and yintakh, which we refer to as a land, but it’s not a word for our land. It’s a philosophy. It speaks to all natural elements, and the humans are one of those, and their interconnectedness. It speaks to any action we have will affect those other natural elements.”

Speaking in Wet’suwet’en, Henry Alfred, chief Wah tah K’eght and leader of Tsekalbaiyex, described the teachings he received from his grandfather. “Granddad told us to respect all living things. That’s how they brought us up. We hunt animals for food, and also for the potlatch. To let people know where this bounty came from … it is also spoken of in the potlatch.”

In the potlatch, people also recounted relationships to their territories. People remembered their territories in story and song in the feast hall. Clans and houses strictly defended their territories. Chief Wah tah K’eght, Henry Alfred, discussed how his grandfather, who also held the name Wah tah K’eght, caught a person trespassing on his territory. Ron Austin provided the translation of Alfred’s story, which was originally told in the Wet’suwet’en language.

“The first time he gave him a feather and, then, the next season, his grandfather came back, the person was trapping again on his territory, so he told him to stop, gave him a second feather. ‘I don’t’ — he told the person — ‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ Third season, Wah tah K’eght went into his territory, again, the person was still on the trap line so he took a rope out of his pack — the person didn’t know he was coming — wrapped it around his neck, killed him and tossed him into the river. They were strict about their territory.”

Although the Wet’suwet’en speakers recognized that killing people for trespass was no longer practised, they strongly asserted that their laws had never been voided. Mike Ridsdale, a Tsayu (Beaver Clan) member, emphasized, “the Wet’suwet’en have never ceded or surrendered any of our traditional lands and waters. We have, through the generations, fought wars to keep our territory. We will not cede any of it.”

However, the panel had limited respect for the Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction and traditional mode of storytelling. After listening to hours of testimony from dozens of speakers, the panel indicated their desire to hurry things along. Panel Chair, Sheila Leggett, suggested the final five Wet’suwet’en speakers “finish up with the next half hour of your presentation and, then, I would suggest that, at that point, we take a break and we move on to the rest of the parties who are here ready to speak.”

In a limited exercise in fairness, the panel offered the final Wet’suwet’en speakers the option of returning to speak late in the evening, after all the other presenters. However, many of the Wet’suwet’en lived hours from Burns Lake in the communities of Smithers, Moricetown, and Hagwilget. Needing to drive home, the procedural pressure of the panel compressed the final Wet’suwet’en speakers’ time.

When Tsayu (Beaver Clan) chief Namox, John Ridsdale, rose to speak, there was heat in his voice. After traveling two and half hours from his home community of Hagwilget to present in Burns Lake, through frigid conditions with temperatures 30 degrees below zero, John Ridsdale had expected to receive more than a token five minutes to present.

“With five minutes to speak, I will only say a few words,” he began. “It’s highly insulting, you tell a Chief that, ‘you’re only going to say a few words,’ when he stands on his own land. I am Wet’suwet’en. I carry the name of Namox and I know my authority. I know my rights and I know our title.”

He noted that for centuries the Wet’suwet’en “protected our lands from any form of incursions,” a trend he suggested would continue “now with this threat that’s on hand.” But stripped to the barest outline of a speech, he articulated a simple commitment to continue to uphold and respect Wet’suwet’en law in the face of the threat posed by the Enbridge pipeline.

“When we speak in the feast hall, we tell the truth. When I swore on the Rattle, the Rattle is hundreds of years old. I did not plan on coming here and telling lies. I did not plan on coming here and saying these are things that we will allow. I did plan on coming here and tell you that this threat to our territories, to our lands, to our culture, to our people is cultural genocide, and we would not allow that.”

Image by Pat Moss.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.