In Canada there have been protests against the building of a gas pipeline. From what I can tell, most protests started when the hereditary leaders of the Weet'suwet'en opposed it and called for allies across the country to protest. However the Federal government argues that they had obtained permission from the elected councils of the First Nations bands involved.

My question is, what is a hereditary chief? More fundamentally, how does a government decide to recognize the power of a member of another nation? Is my understanding of the situation correct? I'm a bit surprised of the magnitude of the support for the hereditary chiefs, generally democracy is very highly valued in western civilizations and I'm wondering why so many people side with them?

  • I gave you thumbs up already, mostly because I want to know the reasons behind the disruption of my morning commute. Your question seems to have been initiated by the protests you mention. But it seems to be much wider, contacting how countries in general interact. I'm thinking there are two basic questions here. Maybe the wider question could be usefully split off into a separate question. This question could be focused specifically on the structure of Native Bands and their relationship to Canada.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 27, 2020 at 14:52
  • Hmm... 10 minutes of surfing led me to many pages similar to this. And my confusion level is only growing. I suspect this situation may get worse before it gets better. bctreaty.ca/treaties-and-agreements
    – puppetsock
    Feb 27, 2020 at 14:59

3 Answers 3


The short answer is Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1997] 3 SCR 1010, otherwise known as Delgamuukw v The Queen, which is a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The longer answer is, well, the same as the short answer but with more words.

The decision stems from a 1984 case launched by the leaders of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations, who took the B.C. provincial government to court to establish jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of land and water in northwest British Columbia.

Fast-forward to this century, when representatives from 20 First Nations -- including the elected chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en -- signed agreements with Coastal GasLink consenting to the project. The pipeline was subsequently approved by the provincial government.

However, some hereditary leaders have not consented to the project, which runs through their territories.

In the Delgamuukw case, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs established that the Indigenous nation has a system of law that predates the days of elected band councils enacted under Canada's Indian Act. ​​​​​​

Under traditional Wet'suwet'en law, hereditary chiefs are responsible for decisions regarding ancestral lands.

In the current dispute, some hereditary chiefs say the decision to approve a pipeline in their ancestral lands without consent is an infringement of their Aboriginal title and rights.

So... yes, it's pretty complex, as far as such things go. But the very short answer to the title question is "The Supreme Court of Canada said they're different."

  • I give you thumbs up. But... Hmm... The plaintiffs lost the 1997 court case, the SCC ordered a new trial, but there has not yet been a new trial. Hmm... And this now-23-year-old dangling case is what is causing me to be late to work. [Insert Southpark angry character face.]
    – puppetsock
    Feb 27, 2020 at 21:43
  • Yes, to add to it, BC is somewhat of its own special mess. Most of Canada's landmass had treaties signed between the Crown and the native tribes. The BC tribes did not, probably because they saw what a bad deal everyone else got. While there are reserves and the whole apparatus of Canadian/Native relations are in place, unlike the rest of Canada, most of BC is unceded land and there is that gray area between the day to day practice vs. the land not being formally ceded in a treaty. Most of the time, not much happens. Here, it does. Feb 27, 2020 at 22:21

Same way Canada has it's own "hereditary chief" in the form of the Queen of England (and by proxy, the Governor General of Canada (commonwealth Governor Generals are, in my opinion, second only to the Vice President of the United States as being the most useless government position ever devised by man and their duties can basically be summed up as "keep the throne warm for the Queen")). The Head of State might be a hereditary position, but the Head of Government is vested in the legislature of the nation (The Prime Minister) and thus has most of the executive and diplomatic functions of running the nation. The tribe may have a similar government structure where the hereditary chief is largely ceremonial while the elected council is tasked with the issues like negotiating with companies for use of tribal land.

  • Native Bands in British Columbia have kings? I'd be real keen to see some detailed explanation. Do any of them have charters or constitutions or some such founding document that shows this structure? I only ask because these protests are currently playing havoc with my morning commute. I'd like to know what is the deal.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 27, 2020 at 14:48
  • I'd have to get back to you about that, as I'm much more familiar with U.S. Native policy, which typically treats tribes as sovereign dependent nations. Most U.S. tribes organize into Presidential systems similar to State Governments, just because it's easy to cheat off the U.S. constitution but again, I've only looked at a handful of tribes in the States.
    – hszmv
    Feb 27, 2020 at 14:59
  • I think most of us are familiar with European style monarchies. Not only that, but the legal questions about what prerogatives they have are well-known, but also decided on a country by country basis: i.e. UK <> Netherlands. This question is about Canada's natives and what weight to give to traditional chiefs, where each tribe/band may have its own customs regarding them as well. Feb 27, 2020 at 22:16

Roger answered the first part of your question, so I will try to give some perspective, not necessarily entirely mine, on why the chiefs get more support than might be expected.

magnitude of the support for the hereditary chiefs, generally democracy is very highly valued in western civilizations and I'm wondering why so many people side with them?

At one level it's actually pretty simple.

There is a lot of frustration from the natives at their place in Canadian society, so it doesn't take much for things to boil over. It might not be so much support for the chiefs per se, as frustration at, real or perceived, injustices:

  • Highway of tears - not far from that area at all
  • Missing and murdered indigenous women
  • Genocide used as a term to describe native problems - I don't agree with the term, but a lot of natives do and use precisely that term.
  • Site C dam, - this is a similar case, where the construction of the new dam infringes on traditional tribal territory. However, this also shows flip side of these issues: the West Moberly band who objects to the dam is composed of 200 people, living on a reserve 90 km away.
  • Pickton - 62 women killed, many of them natives, with Vancouver Police Dept not having a formal task force until they were taken to labor court for unfair dismissal of a profiler who went public with claims of serial killer. The embarrassment quickly resulted in going from 3 part-timers to 60 full-time investigators.

I apologize if bringing up these points seems completely unrelated to the question, but they would seem very much related from a native's point of view, especially Site C when it comes to a pipeline.

It's really, really, hard to find a happy middle ground with this type of background and part of what you are seeing might be less due to unconditional support for the hereditary chiefs - whose popularity will vary from tribe to tribe - than it is more general frustration.

Plus, it's a pipeline, so that's not going to make it popular, even if it is a gas, not oil, pipeline.

Were the relations between the natives and wider Canadian society better, and if there was more mutual trust, then we would probably have a better established way to resolve these kinds of disputes.

  • Of course, the real underlying issue is that Native Americans still have a special status in North America, rather than being granted normal property rights over their lands as well as the title of regular Canadian citizens with same rights and obligations as everyone else. Feb 29, 2020 at 4:39
  • @JonathanReez That's your take on it. Most of my examples have little to do with property rights and I have zero interest in Canada breaking its treaties with the various tribes for to make them like everybody else, not considering that it was their land before we got here. That's seen as assimilation and rightly ticks them off. In general, Canada would only benefit if the First Nations had a more... for lack of better words, successful or satisfactory - to themselves - position. They don't, making our vaunted claims of Canadian multiethnic harmony a bit hollow. Feb 29, 2020 at 23:10
  • Having said that, the capacity of a tribe with only a few hundreds of people to reach out and block stuff tens of kilometers away from their reserve, like West Moberlty wrt Site C, doesn't sit well with me. But it is probably linked to BC's lack of actual treaties: in day-to-day stuff, they don't get a say who builds a house where, outside of their immediate jurisdiction. With something big, the gray area due to the unceded land status can kick in. BC has spent massive amounts of $ trying to draw up treaties but has little to show for it. Doesn't mean taking away their rights is right. Feb 29, 2020 at 23:16

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