Federal, B.C. ministers began pipeline talks with hereditary chiefs

Sit-down with chiefs wraps

UPDATE: 9:15 p.m.

A meeting between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and federal and B.C. ministers has ended for the day in Smithers, B.C., with a plan to resume Friday morning.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser didn't provide details of what was discussed when the meeting ended, less than three hours after it began.

Fraser says the talks were productive and the mood in the room was respectful, while Bennett adds it was a very good start.

Freda Huson, spokeswoman for the Unist'ot'en camp that has been set up near a Coastal GasLink pipeline work site, says the meeting covered introductions and was respectful.

Wet'suwet'en member Bonnie George, who supports the pipeline, wasn't invited to the meeting but says she and others entered the room and read a statement that said the entire nation needs to be represented and not just a small fraction.

She says the statement caused a "little bit of tension" but a majority of those in the meeting were respectful and she believes it's a first step towards reconciliation.

ORIGINAL: 3:50 p.m.

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en sat down Thursday with senior government ministers to discuss a pipeline dispute that has caused protests across the country, shutting down freight and passenger rail services.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and British Columbia Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser arrived separately for the meeting with the hereditary chiefs, starting long-sought talks in the impasse.

Before the meeting began, both the RCMP and Coastal GasLink said they agreed to conditions requested by the chiefs to allow the discussions to progress.

The natural gas company agreed to a two-day pause in its activities in northwestern B.C., while the RCMP committed to ending patrols along a critical roadway while the negotiations unfold.

The chiefs praised the moves in a statement released before the talks got underway.

"We believe these conditions provide the space we need to be able to sit down at the table in good faith and a positive path forward," the statement read.

"We are so close and have called on the provincial and federal governments to support this de-escalation of activities so that this issue can be resolved."

The chiefs said the meeting with Bennett and Fraser is a "first step," noting both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan declined invitations to discuss the long-simmering issues that have gained fresh urgency in recent weeks.

The chiefs' opposition to a natural gas pipeline cutting across their traditional territory, coupled with their efforts to limit police presence on their lands, have sparked shows of support across the country that have halted rail service for the past three weeks.

Both Bennett and Fraser said they hoped the meetings would pave the way to end the dispute and protests.

"We're looking forward to the meeting," Bennett said moments after arriving in Smithers. "Obviously this is very important. We reaffirm our interest in talking to the Wet'suwet'en Nation and their issues of title and rights."

Fraser largely echoed Bennett in a statement issued shortly before his departure for the meeting.

"We are pleased to have been able to arrange for further talks with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs," the statement read. "We are coming to the table with a commitment to respectful dialogue and are focused on finding a peaceful path forward."

Horgan said he has met with the hereditary leaders twice over the past year and a half and is prepared to sit down with them again, but there need to be conditions for constructive dialogue.

Fraser understands the community's governance issues and Bennett represents the Crown in Canada, so the best way forward is for them to be at the table, he said.

"I think that this is a good step. I've been seeking peaceful dialogue for a couple of weeks and here we are," he said. "I'm looking forward to harmony as a result of those discussions."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the meeting was a victory for open dialogue and peaceful resolution, but it is only the beginning as there are underlying rights and title issues that will take time to resolve.

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