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GUEST: Inside the Wetsuwet’en Power Struggle

The Office of the Wetsuwet’en, upon whom media attention is focussed, is a quarter-century-old green quango sustained by governments and philanthropies.

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Athabascan-speaking indigenous peoples of B.C.’s central interior were once called “Carriers.” The name survives in: Carrier Chilcotin Tribal Council and Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. B.C.’s 8,000 Carriers populate a dozen bands. Distinctions among Carriers, and between Carriers and their neighbors, turn on differences in dialects that few actually speak. Several Carrier bands now self-identify as “Wetsuwet’en.” 

Carriers contacted Europeans in 1793 and soon plied the fur trade. Between 1871 and 1895 Ottawa assigned them reservations. Employment in railway crews and logging camps dates to this era.

Wetsuwet’en First Nation (pop. 257) is one of three bands arising from the recent breakup of the Omenica Band. The other two are: Nee-Tah-Buhn (pop. 130) and Skin Tyee (pop. 164). 

Coastal GasLink began consulting effected aboriginals in 2012. They held 15,000 consultations and awarded a third of the pipeline’s preparatory jobs to aboriginals.

Coastal GasLink inked agreements with 20 First Nations including the abovementioned: Wetsuwet’en, Wislet, Skin Tyee and Nee-Tah-Buhn bands. Also signing were Wetsuwet’en bands in the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council:  Stellat’en, Ts’il Kaz Koh, Nadleh Whuten and Saik’uz. The sole unsigned Wetsuwet’en band, Hagwilget Village, is far from GasLink’s route. All Wetsuwet’en bands along Coastal GasLink’s route have consented. 

Wislet First Nation alone will receive $55 million over the life of the project; plus, jobs and training. In a 2018 secret ballot, two-thirds of Wislet voters supported Coastal GasLink’s offer.

The Office of the Wetsuwet’en (“OW”) is the unelected, media-anointed representative of the Wetsuwet’en. By admission, the Smithers-headquartered OW is: “not an Indian Band or a tribal council.”

(The five bands with which OW claims affiliation receive combined annual revenues of $25 million; mostly from Ottawa. Combined on-reserve populations total 1,250. Their 3,000 off-reserve members live in Smithers, Prince Rupert, Prince George and Vancouver. Many were born in these centres.

In 1992, Ottawa hatched the B.C. Treaty Commission and Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy. The former funds B.C. aboriginal participation in treaty negotiations.

The Wetsuwet’en Treaty Office Society emerged in 1994 to access Commission funds. Since then, they’ve rung-up a $15 million debt. They receive annual loans and contributions totalling around $400,000. Money goes to honoraria for Hereditary Chiefs, administration, overhead, etc.  

The Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy (AFS) is a Fisheries and Oceans Canada initiative. A.F.S. disburses $35 million annually to 125 groups. Aboriginals are paid to: monitor wildlife; enforce conservation regulations, and manage traditional fisheries.

In 1995, the Office of Wetsuwet’en Chiefs landed a $105,000 AFS cheque. In 1996, they netted: a $500,000 A.F.S. cheque; a $100,000 “green plan” cheque; and $89,000 in salmon sales. (Salmon sales thereafter disappear from the books.) 

The Office of Wetsuwet’en Chiefs was an unregistered society managing the Wetsuwet’en Treaty Office Society. The two entities merged in 2000, into the Office of the Wetsuwet’en. 

O.W. parlayed A.F.S. and Commission stipends into several counselling, cultural and enviro-assessment programs. Their $4 million in annual revenues goes mostly to salaries, administration, and honoraria for Hereditary Chiefs. OW employs 30 full-time staff.

O.W.’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department employs 3 full-time, and 20 seasonal workers. Department boss Walter Joseph got the gig in 1996 and never left. Walt’s an “adopted” Wetsuwet’en.

O.W.’s Natural Resources Department employs 4 full-timers. Hereditary Chief John Ridsdale is spokesman. Mike Ridsdale does enviro-assessments. David Dewit (B.Sc. Biol.) specializes in “sensitive ecosystem preservation.” David Belford – a non-aboriginal who’s been moiling aboriginal grants since 1975 – specializes in media relations and negotiating “engagement agreements”, whereby hapless resource companies bankroll OW’s enviro-assessments.

O.W.’s records contain line items regarding “Coastal GasLink Project Assessment” ($154,000 in 2014; $111,000 in 2015 and $114,000 in 2016). This money apparently came from Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency; although a 2016 issue of Wetsuwet’en Voice references a $30 million provincial LNG Environmental Stewardship Fund.

O.W.’s Resource Department’s land-sharing/enviro-agreements yield a few hundred grand annually. O.W. logging made a $1 million a year in 2012-13 before devolving into a smaller but steady payout from Canfor. 

The 2016 Financial Statement mentions a “title assertion case” against Canfor on behalf of Hagwilget Village. That band ran up a $293,000 debt to O.W. but a $330,000 Canfor cheque cleared this. 

O.W. documents detail grants from enviro-funders. The Pacific Salmon Foundation has given cheques in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. The Driftwood Foundation gave them $9,500 for “clan meetings.” The Bulkley Valley Research Centre donated over $100,000. During 2014-16, Tides Canada awarded $130,000 for clan meetings and “IT support”. 

O.W. boasts “structural allegiances” with: the US enviro-grantmaker Moore Foundation, the Skeena Fisheries Commission, and the Skeenawild Conservation Trust (an E.N.G.O. connected to major foundations). John Ridsdale is a Skeenawild Trustee.

O.W.’s Mission:

“Based on the priorities of the Board of Directors, staff must negotiate program funding through various federal and provincial governments and foundations. This situation creates added responsibility for management to ensure that programs meet goals to illustrate success and generate support for continued funding.”

O.W. does Big Green’s bidding whist shaking down resource companies and the workers (often indigenous) that stand to benefit. 

O.W. documents are saturated with eco-propaganda. Hereditary Chief Henry Alfred intones: 

“We need to clean up the environment and ecosystem by ending the use of herbicides and pesticides.”  

O.W.’s website sports anti-pipeline articles dating to 2006. An October 2018 media release crows about O.W.’s longstanding opposition to all pipelines. O.W. led aboriginal opposition to Northern Gateway, which the Trudeau government killed in 2016. A December 2018 release affirms their programmatic opposition to Coastal GasLink.

Another pillar of O.W.’s Mission is: “ensure a governance model based on our hereditary system.” They declare:

“Our office is governed by Wetsuwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.” Not the democratically elected band council representing the Wetsuwet’en people.

Hereditary Chiefs aren’t strictly hereditary. Chief Alphonse Gagnon appears to be white. 

Moreover, in 2015, after three female Hereditary Chiefs endorsed Coastal Gaslink, the O.W. gang stripped them of their chiefdoms. (The women contest this usurpation.) The title of “Chief Woos” was taken from Darlene Glaim and given to Frank Alec, who became spokesman for the eco-activist Gitdumden clan. 

In 2019, to mitigate this patriarchal purge O.W. elevated Freda Huson and Molly Wickham to “Wing-Chiefs.” Huson is the hyper-activist co-founder of the Unistoten Camp. The telegenic, university-educated OW staffer, Wickham, isn’t Wetsuwet’en. 

In 2009, O.W. issued an imperious Protocol requiring resource companies in their self-declared 22,000 sq. k. domain to submit all plans to OW for approval. Also in 2009, O.W. held five weekend retreats; one for each “clan.” Each retreat attracted a dozen adults who were lectured by Ridsdale and Belford on eco-activist tactics. One retreat conjured the “Unistoten” – allegedly a “house” within the Big Frog clan.    

The Unistoten are no ancient order. They are a plausibly deniable, direct action, astro-turf front group. The Unistoten Camp blockade, the main manifestation of opposition to Coastal GasLink, has been joined by the Gitdumden Camp. Many camp activists are non-aboriginal, professional protestors.

The few thousand people who might rightly claim Wetsuwet’en heritage are demonstrably, overwhelmingly supportive of Coastal Gaslink.

The Office of the Wetsuwet’en, upon whom media attention is focussed, is a quarter-century-old green quango sustained by governments and philanthropies. 

O.W. “Hereditary Chiefs” represent only themselves and their ill-intentioned funders.

Guest column by William Kay. The contents of this article are the property and responsibility of William Kay’s and not the Western Standard. 

Features

Search for a Western Anthem: “All Hell for a Basement” (Heaven in Alberta)

You must hear this song to understand why it speaks to so many Albertans on a visceral level

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The Western Standard put out a call for our readers to help us pick the unofficial anthem for Alberta (or more broadly, Buffalo or Western Canada). We asked you to submit songs that would inspire us during hard times, would speak to our distinct Western culture, and would be good for crowds to sing together. You didn’t disappoint.

We received many great anthem ideas: some familiar classics, some newer hits, and many excellent rarer songs which I had never heard before. Many are strong contenders, and some a little off mark. I have been sifting through reader e-mails and social media comments, and narrowed it down to the best handful of songs. We will not be able to cover all of them, but over the next few weeks we will be selecting some of the best suggestions and explaining why we think they would make a great pick to become the unofficial anthem of the West.

As expected, one of the top submissions was “All Hell for a Basement”, also known as “Heaven in Alberta”, by Big Sugar. Originally released in 2001, the song features thrashing drums and electric guitars. For some listeners, this original version evokes the feeling of driving an F350 to a rig site, across the empty prairie landscape before the sun comes up.

In my opinion, the unofficial acoustic version does the most compelling job of capturing the song’s emotions. Like all anthems, you can’t just read the lyrics. You must hear this song to understand why it speaks to so many of our people on a visceral level.

The title “All Hell for a Basement” sounds odd at first. The phrase actually comes from a quote by Rudyard Kipling, the novelist and poet famous for The Jungle Book. Upon visiting Medicine Hat, Alberta in 1907, Kipling was impressed by the region’s massive quantities of underground natural gas. He remarked, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

Gordie Johnson wrote this song when he was the front man for the Big Sugar. Johnson was born in Winnipeg and grew up in Ontario before his family moved back west to Medicine Hat.

The song is simultaneously tragic and hopeful. The opening line, “I am a working man, but I ain’t worked for a while,” captures a reality that requires no explanation for our readers. The writer feels discarded “Like some old tin can, from the bottom of the pile.” As the song understands, unemployment is not only a crisis of material means, but also of identity and meaning. So many of us derive much of our sense of self-worth from our work and from the ability to feed our families.

But there is hope in this song as well. The lyrics to the chorus are as follows:

“I have lost my way / But I hear tell / Of Heaven in Alberta / Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.”

There’s no question why this song was requested by so many of our readers. Alberta used to be a beacon of hope that attracted hard-working people from struggling economies far and wide. Many working men who had lost their way came here to find it. Of course, this song and its underlying drive hails from a time when Alberta’s economic engine was not under direct assault by Ottawa.

So yes, let’s acknowledge the tragedy that this song captures for us in the West: unemployment, loss of purpose, and the feeling of being discarded “like some old tin can” by those in power who no longer have a use for us. But let’s also take this anthem as a reminder of the hope that we in Alberta once provided for a hopeless people. Let’s reawaken that sense of hope within ourselves, and begin to take the necessary steps to get on the right path toward prosperity. Start with yourself as an individual by reclaiming who you truly are: not “some old tin can” to be discarded by the Laurentians, but a “working man” whose skills and work ethic are still valued by us here in the West.

So how does this song stack up as an anthem, based on the three main criteria we established? First, does it inspire us? Yes, in its call to face the tragedy of unemployment and reclaim one’s self-worth as a working man, this checks out. Second, does it speak to our unique culture, heritage, and experiences? Yes, at least to some aspects of our experiences (oil & gas: check). Third, is it good for crowds to sing at public events? That’s where I think this song may fall short of anthem material. The lyrics are simply not designed for that. With lyrics like “My words are like a rope / that’s wrapped around my throat,” people might see only the tragic side, and not the redemption part of the story.

Based on the reader responses, this song will no doubt make the top 10 list. Can I see it being the song that Westerners sing with their hands over their hearts at a hockey game? Personally, I don’t think so. The lyrics are applicable to the working man, but what about school children in their weekly assembly? An anthem needs to have wider appeal, in my opinion. But what do you think?

My verdict: Great song, but I’m not sure if we have found our anthem yet.

The search continues!

Do you have your own idea for the unofficial anthem of Alberta? It’s not too late. Leave a comment below, on social media, or send us an e-mail, and we will consider featuring your anthem idea in another column. Email your submissions for an Alberta, Buffalo, or Western anthem to anthemsearch@westernstandardonline.com

James Forbes is the Western Heritage Columnist for the Western Standard

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Working from home with dysfunctional ‘co-workers’

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Need to put a smile on your face amid nothing but bad, worse, and awful news? Read on.

A North Carolina mom started working from home and decided to ask Twitter for ‘co-worker’ stories.

For the accountants and bookkeepers:

Dieticians:

For the upwardly mobile:

For the artistically inclined:

Sanitation:

Lunchroom dramas:

When to call human resources:

And some things stay the same..

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a Senior Reporter with Western Standard
dmaclean@westernstandardonline.com
Twitter @Mitchell_AB

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Two Alberta businesses – different challenges in a pandemic

“Whatever has happened elsewhere is what we’re barreling towards,” Jacobs said.

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Bryan Orr, a drilling engineer in Alberta, is employed with NBC Technologies, who subcontracts with larger operators such as Tamarack Valley.

“I love drilling but it’s about to fall off a cliff,” Orr said. “The oil price coupled with challenges relating to chemicals and materials from China…”

During the drilling process, water, or a mud mixture, is pumped down through the bit. Barite, one of the chemicals used in that process, as well as chemicals used to make cement, come from China. Orr says the supply is getting low.

There’s also other materials such as pipe which is also becoming more scarce. Piping used both in the drilling process so the rock doesn’t collapse itself and pipe that is used to transport product. Orr said some of the storage companies are setting to close and that’s going to cause a problem.

“Reasons for Canada running a fraction of the rigs of the US aren’t geologically driven but based on pipeline access and other regulatory issues that are solvable by a supportive federal government.”

But Orr says there are further difficulties with the changes enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to working remotely.

“Unique challenges with the pandemic lie with decision-makers – getting rapid approvals can be difficult.”

In a business that has been about face-to-face meeting and relationship building, the idea that all work can continue via email isn’t as welcome to those used to running the show in person.

Even with those challenges, however, Orr said he is still optimistic.

One positive of the rapid changes in oil that have been happening is that these issues also help drive efficiencies. Orr says the cost of drilling wells has gone down substantially in Canada – comparatively – to the U.S.

“We’ve been lucky (at Tamarack and NBC Technologies) because we had a huge success last year that’s been driving a lot of production this year. Even though it’s a reduction in drilling, we were able to prove that we could reduce our footprint with three-mile Tamarack wells that allow us greater access.”

The new drilling process is nominated for a Collaborative Trendsetter award at the Global Petroleum Show.

Orr admits the majority of his work, while reliant on a customer-base, isn’t reliant on in-person transactions. Others – who are reliant on the physical presence of consumerism – are facing additional challenges that aren’t just based on the point of sale.

Jonathan Jacobs owns a Fort Lanes, a bowling and virtual golf business in Fort Saskatchewan. He purchased the business after he was laid off from his job in the oil patch in 2015. Jacobs could see that times were changing for his trade and he and his wife decided to invest in a local business.

Jacobs says the family wasn’t likely to get rich but they made a living. He had enough business to hire some employees and, all in all, had a successful small business.

“We had a ‘soft’ year (in 2019),” he said. “We looked at 2020 and said ‘it’ll be fine as long as nothing goes wrong’.”

The small entertainment business Jacobs runs still has employees but a lot less customers.

“I underestimated (the impact of COVID-19) until right now,” he said. “As of last Wednesday, there was no reason to believe this was coming.”

“This” is mass cancellation of classes and people being told to self-isolate. What bothers him most is the apparent mixed messaging.

“The government response has been rapid fire and all over the map. It’s hard to get your feet under you,” he said. “And that’s just week one – what happens in week two?”

Jacobs said people are being told to stay home but the government is also saying businesses can remain open. He said it doesn’t help him to stay open if there’s no customers. It’s something he’s also hearing that from other business owners in the area.

“We (local business owners) talk every day right now,” he said. “I can’t work from home – I can’t deliver bowling pins to your house to play there.”

His alley hosts leagues for all ages and special Olympics training. Jacobs said they cut the league play but his alley won’t hold 250 people so he stayed open. Now the government is saying no more than 50 people should gather but they’re also saying people need to adapt to a ‘new normal’ that is based on social distancing.

Special Olympics is on hold until April 13, Jacobs said. but public health messaging is saying things will be on hold for “months”.

Jacobs said he’s getting a better idea of what to expect from watching what’s going on in other provinces – like Quebec – who just asked bars and restaurants to close.

“Whatever happened there is what we’re barreling towards,” he said.

He said he wished that business owners had better communication from the leadership in terms of what to expect. Jacobs said he realizes this is unprecedented but feels like a more coordinated effort to communicate, especially when so many businesses are reliant on customers being physically present, would have been beneficial for him – especially when it comes to planning.

“There were 29 cases when we implemented the social distancing. What are the parameters for ending this?” He asked. “Not knowing is the worst. I have employees. Is it going to continue until May? June? At least then I’d know it’s not April.”

“They have issues managers making a quarter of a million dollars per year – why don’t they manage some real issues?”

Jacobs said he’s hoping the communication will get better, particularly in terms of how “this ends”.

“What will they be looking for to ease the restrictions?” He asked. “How will we know if we should hold on or close up?”

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a Senior Reporter with Western Standard
dmaclean@westernstandardonline.com
Twitter @Mitchell_AB

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