Madam Speaker, to begin I will note that I will be splitting my time with the member for Winnipeg Centre.
[Member spoke in Wet'suwet'en]
We stand here today at a historic moment when trains across this country are at a standstill, critical infrastructure is being blocked, Canadians are so concerned about what is going on and indigenous people across this country are wondering what the Prime Minister means when he says the word “reconciliation” and when he says there is no relationship more important than the one with indigenous people.
The riding I represent, Skeena—Bulkley Valley, has been living this issue for years now. It is a difficult one for many people and for no people more so than the Wet'suwet'en.
I asked Sue Alfred if I could share her story and she gave me her permission. Sue carries the hereditary Wet'suwet'en name Wil'at. She is 80 years old and she lives in the community of Witset just west of Smithers. Peter Michell and Annie Tiljoe were her grandparents.
In 1914, her mother was one year old and one of seven children. Her grandparents lived in a place called Misty Falls near the community of Houston where they had a homestead. They were living on land the Wet'suwet'en had occupied for a millennia and one day in 1914 the RCMP came to her property with the Indian agent and told her grandparents that they had to move along.
They packed their things and walked dozens of miles to an area near Smithers called Glentanna. They tried to establish a home there. What happened? The same people showed up. The RCMP and the Indian agent came and again told them that they had to move along, and so they did. They moved to another place on the Telkwa High Road near the community of Witset and made their home there.
Sue tells me she remembers her grandmother crying as she told her this story of displacement. We can understand why the police action we have seen in recent days and weeks on Wet'suwet'en territory is so troubling to so many people who call that place home. This is why further police action threatens to undermine any chance of real reconciliation.
In the northwest we have been having the difficult conversations around reconciliation, resource development and respect for indigenous rights for years. As communities, we have started to face the difficult colonial history that has held back our relationship with indigenous people. We have begun to work on how to work together to be better stewards of the lands and waters and create a future for our children.
In my hometown of Smithers we sat down with the Wet'suwet'en chiefs and elders and they told us their stories. We worked with them, the municipal government and the hereditary government, to tell the difficult stories about our community's past. It is one of the first steps in moving forward together.
Across the region I represent courageous indigenous people have been working for years to gain recognition and respect on their own lands. Some, like the Nisga'a people, succeeded in achieving British Columbia's first modern treaty, a treaty that set out a path for self-government and was signed in 1998.
At the same time, it was the hereditary leaders of the Gitxsan and the Wet'suwet'en who went to court to establish and affirm their rights, to have them affirmed by the court, in the Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa court case. They fought for 20 years against the Crown, which for all that time maintained a policy of denial. It denied them their rights and denied them their stories.
They fought it all the way to the Supreme Court where on appeal their rights were affirmed and the judge said that their stories did matter and that they did have rights on that land. The Supreme Court ruled that their title to the land in northwest British Columbia that they have occupied for thousands of years remains unextinguished.
We have landed at a place where the only way out of this crisis is through dialogue, understanding, humility and true nation-to-nation talks. I am very pleased to see that those talks are starting. No matter how late in the game they are coming, they are of the utmost importance. I want to commend the Minister of Indigenous Services for the respect and dignity he has brought over recent days to those conversations.
We also need to ask ourselves whether we could have foreseen this. The Wet'suwet'en heredity chiefs are the same group that fought that Delgamuukw court case all the way to the Supreme Court. They fought against the government policy of denial and established a precedent for indigenous groups across the country.
The court recognized their standing and it set a precedent. In that ruling the judge directed the federal government that it had “a moral, if not legal, duty to enter into and conduct those negotiations in good faith” on the question of their indigenous title.
In over 20 years since that historic ruling, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to step up and begin the difficult work of upholding, acknowledging and affirming Wet'suwet'en title.
There has been so much said in recent days about what percentage of people support what, and my fear is this only serves to further deepen the divides that have been created.
The assertions made today by the leader of the official opposition suggesting that the Coastal GasLink project has majority support by one group or another group very much fall into this category. The reality is that the heredity chiefs represent a legitimate decision-making body for indigenous people outside of reserves. The court has said so.
I was at the balhats, the feast in Witset, where the chiefs ratified their non-consent for this pipeline. This came after they had recommended and suggested alternate routes, which were rejected by the company.
Throughout all of this, where was the federal government? Where was the Prime Minister and his commitment to reconciliation?
The reality is that we talk about changing our relationship with indigenous people, yet we see a reluctance to change anything about the status quo and the way we do business. As the blockades have shown, that is just not going to fly.
We have landed in a predicament that cannot be fixed by police action. If it could have, it would have been fixed in January 2019 when the police arrested and removed 14 people from the Morice West Forest Service Road, or it would have been fixed last month when they did the same thing again.
The images of RCMP tactical teams pointing rifles at unarmed Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan people, the images of indigenous people being dragged over the very land their ancestors once walked, and the vicious racist social media commentary we have seen online in recent days and weeks have sparked a solidarity movement the likes of which our country has never seen.
We find ourselves where we are today with people across the country blocking the infrastructure that Canadians need in their daily lives for the services they rely on and the products their lifestyle relies on. We can discount the voices of the people blockading as those of fringe radicals or anarchists. We can choose to discount those voices, or we can listen closely to what indigenous people on those blockades are saying.
If we listen closely we can hear there is too much of a gap between what the government says about indigenous people and its actions. Do we actually grasp the gravity of a situation in which young indigenous people are telling us that reconciliation is dead? I am not sure we do.
As I said before, this issue is a very difficult one for northwest B.C. communities. There are indeed indigenous groups in the riding I represent that support this project and that stand to benefit from it. I spoke today with Crystal Smith, the chief councillor of the Haisla Nation. She told me about the educational and employment opportunities that people in her community are already experiencing. These voices are important too. We cannot ignore these voices.
Ultimately, the only way out of this is through nation-to-nation talks, dialogue and humility. The problem is that the government keeps talking about doing things differently without being willing to change the status quo one iota.
Sue Alfred's late husband was Wah Tah K'eght, Henry Alfred, who was the last living plaintiff from the Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa court case. Her daughter is Dolores Alfred, who teaches the Wet'suwet'en language and culture in Smithers, and her grandson is Rob Alfred, who opposes the pipeline.
The story of her family, the story of displacement and of being denied a voice and fundamental rights, is the story of so many indigenous people. It is time to write a new story, and that starts with the Prime Minister sitting down with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and hearing their stories.
[Member spoke in Wet'suwet'en]