‘We need to find a way forward together’

Our CEO, Karen Ogen-Toews, writes a guest column in The Province:

We have protest groups, we have politicians, we have social-media axe-grinders and we have people with their own legal interpretation of the issues, all arguing back and forth over whether First Nations are governed by hereditary chiefs or elected councillors.

But there’s usually something missing in the debate, something critical, and that’s the people of the First Nations communities.

There’s a reason why the elected chiefs and councils of 20 nations along the Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline route have voted in favour of the development. And that reason is the benefits, jobs, careers, opportunities and revenue that will go to and support the people. In addition, being involved with the development of these projects means that our communities are able to ensure that these projects are constructed in a way that meets their commitments.

Whether we’re elected chiefs or hereditary chiefs, we must find ways forward for our people. And that’s the critical point that everybody’s missing.

I have a background of 25 years of being a social worker, so I’ve been on the front lines, dealing with the social issues of our First Nations. When you’re on the front lines, it just seems that the issues are endless.

I’ve seen our people, first hand, living in real poverty. I’ve seen the social issues, the astronomical unemployment rates, the child-welfare cases, the suicides, the addictions, the low levels of education, the poor housing conditions. I’ve seen how we’re rapidly losing our language and culture within our communities.

I’ve seen the impact on the people of colonization, of the residential schools and the abuses, of the Sixties Scoop of children torn by governments from their First Nations families, and of the missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Those issues, those impacts, are about the people. Both levels of governing bodies, the hereditary chiefs and the elected councils, must sit down for the sake of the people. We need to find a way forward.

Those elected councils go forward every single day for their people, trying to find ways and means to make a better quality of life for the people. And that’s the fact that the media and the social media and the people with their own legal interpretations are missing.

The nations that have approved the pipeline, and the LNG Canada project, have consulted with their people. They met their consultation duties as elected councillors. There have been five or six years of consultation, doing due diligence, meeting with their people and getting their say on the project.

Maybe not everyone in a Nation agrees with the pipeline or LNG. That would be true in any community, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. But the majority of the people within the communities have agreed with the projects. And some of these elected councils have hereditary chiefs as members.

The elected councils are still leaders, trying to do their best with the means that they have, committed to moving forward and finding ways and means to address economic and social issues.

Until there is another mode of governing within our communities, this is the only structure we have in place that has legal jurisdiction. It is the only legislation in place at this moment. It will take years of litigation before we have a new form of governance in our communities.

But our people can’t wait. We need to address the poverty and social issues now. And that’s the fact that the axe-grinders are missing. When, in all of their arguments, do the people and their interests get mentioned?

This is a critical time because there are going to be more natural-resource projects coming along and we need to find a way forward together. We need to sit down collectively and work together — for the people.

Karen Ogen-Toews is CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance and a former chief councillor of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

The column as it ran in The Province on 24 January 2019












(Posted here 24 January 2019)