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David Anthony Carten, '21SPS, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, Moves Forward with His Capstone Project about Wet’suwet’en – Coastal GasLink Conflict

After two decades of global experience in renewable energy, David Anthony Carten shifted his career goal to become a practitioner of negotiation and conflict resolution. With more than 20 years of experience negotiating between groups from different cultures and ideological backgrounds, Carten officially entered the profession following his formal academic training in Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) M.S. program.

Carten’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution capstone project analyzed the ongoing Wet'suwet'en-Coastal GasLink conflict in northern British Columbia (BC), which has severely divided the Wet'suwet'en Nation and brought forth complex issues and challenges with decolonization efforts in the province. The Coastal GasLink pipeline is meant to connect vast natural gas reserves found in northeastern British Columbia with the LNG Canada’s liquefied natural gas port facility in Kitimat, located on Canada’s northern pacific coastline. Investments in LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink are estimated at roughly $40 billion and include significant support from both the Governments of British Columbia and Canada, making it the largest energy project in Canadian history.

The planned pipeline route, however, cuts into Wet'suwet'en traditional territory called the Yintah, a vast land spanning 22,000 square kilometers, including rivers vital to the sustenance of Wet'suwet'en society and culture. Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs, who represent the traditional Wet'suwet'en governance regime, are mostly opposed to the project. But elected band councils who, under Canada’s Indian Act, administer Indian Reserves representing four of the five First Nations communities within the Yintah, have signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink in exchange for their support of the pipeline. Those band councils have also entered into benefits agreements with the Government of British Columbia that purport to waive their constitutional rights as part of their consent to the project. The Supreme Court of Canada, however, has acknowledged extensive aboriginal rights and title over large areas of which the reserves are only a small part and have also acknowledged the validity of the hereditary governance system. This makes it a much more complex situation than the more common situation found in districts where reserves and/or treaties might represent the totality of aboriginal rights, Carten says. The Wet'suwet'en-CGL conflict is generally seen as emblematic of the inflection point of where Indigenous Rights and Title are in British Columbia today.

What drew you to Columbia’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution M.S. program?

I was drawn to Columbia’s NECR program following some careful reflection about a career shift since moving back to Canada after more than 20 years of living and working internationally. When I moved to Vancouver in 2016, it was immediately evident that Canada was at the beginning of a significant change in its relationship with Indigenous peoples and that Canadian society in general would no longer tolerate the existing colonial regime. British Columbia is also very unique in that most of the land here has never been ceded to the provincial or federal Crowns, representing a vast expanse of territories that are in essence Indigenous. Of roughly 200 Indigenous Nations in British Columbia, only eight have ever signed treaties with provincial or federal governments, meaning the vast majority of the province’s territory remains unceded Indigenous land. Forestry, mining, and oil & gas are resources found mostly on those Indigenous lands and represent well over 60% of the province’s exports; all of which makes it abundantly clear that BC and the Indigenous peoples within the province are at the beginning of a major transition. 

Prior to my professional career in renewable energy, I always had a keen interest in the complexities of these kinds of issues. I have a bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies and focused much of my studies at that time on Africa, colonization, decolonization, etc. I even researched my honors thesis in South Africa in 1996, only two years after the end of apartheid, and attended key, national Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal hearings. By combining this background with over 20 years of experience negotiating with people of very different cultures and ideologies in my professional life, I thought I might have something unique to contribute to reconciliation efforts here in BC.

I also knew that in order for me to crack into the field, I needed to add specific formal training in appropriate disciplines. Columbia offered both negotiation and conflict resolution; whereas most programs dealing with these disciplines only offer one or the other; negotiation often being a subset within an MBA program or a law degree. Also, the conflict resolution I was interested in, specifically complex international conflicts, is generally only offered at schools that train people for work in the U.S. State Department; whereas this is a real focus of the Columbia program.

You specialize in many areas of negotiation. Which areas did you improve the most due to your education at Columbia?

First, the NECR program puts a great deal of emphasis on behavioral psychology, starting with “who you bring to the negotiating table” when you show up. This wasn’t something I expected, but it is now something I appreciate a great deal. It has been transformative in both my professional and personal lives. 

Second, I was immersed in theories and frameworks for analyzing and developing resolution strategies for highly complex conflicts, which is an NECR program focus.  For my goals with indigenous reconciliation here in Canada, it was this particular foundation I wanted to draw from. I have since been able to innovatively and effectively apply this training to my professional life post-graduation 

Third, and most importantly, the program gave me perspective. No one should ever underestimate how challenging it is to bring people together for successful collaborations. Any collaborative pursuit is fraught with conflict, but conflict does not have to be destructive. Conflicts can in fact be an opportunity for adaptation and collaboration. Fulfilling this perspective of conflict, however, is best informed by the academic training that can only be acquired at a university. One's perspectives are then supported by the confidence that comes with intellectual acumen, enabling one to be more deliberate and strategic in finding a path towards positive and sustainable outcomes. That is a big difference at any stage in one's career.

What was your Capstone Project about? Where did you learn the issue from and why did you choose it as your Capstone Project? 

My Capstone project analyzed the Wet’suwet’en–Coastal Gas Link conflict in northern British Columbia. My thesis asked broadly how Wet’suwet’en traditional leadership and Wet'suwet'en elected-band-council leadership could cooperate more effectively. My secondary questions explored structural and dynamical elements: “What is the role and force of the Indian Act in BC now that Bill 41, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act is in place?; How will the interests of Wet'suwet'en self-determination and economic security be resolved? The case study utilized aspects of interdependence, power, and culture for a better understanding of the systems at play in the conflict between these different Indigenous governance regimes and with the governments of Canada and British Columbia. I then promoted actionable pragmatic conflict resolution interventions into the BC social world and web of actors based on the needs that emerged from my analysis. I chose this topic as the conflict literally exploded in the first month of my program and was aligned directly with why I was at the university.

What was the biggest obstacle you met in conducting the project? 

The pandemic was a real problem since I was unable to make it into the field for research. However, the pandemic also froze the conflict in time, from March 2020 until just recently. This pause gave me the opportunity and time to take a deep dive into the nuances and highly-complex systemic issues concerning Indigenous peoples in Canada. The situation here is more complex than I ever imagined, despite having grown up here and having lived in some very complicated, conflict-prone societies globally.

Has your understanding of the Wet'suwet'en conflict changed since finishing your Capstone?

Since October 2021, I have been working with Crossroads Cultural Resource Management Ltd. (CCRM), based in Smithers, British Columbia right in the heart of the Yintah. Uniquely in the province, CCRM has over 20 years of experience working at the intersection of Indigenous Nations and industry, which by necessity, requires expertise for understanding the ecological, social, and cultural elements that are deeply intertwined and powerfully latent with any new project proposed within Indigenous territories; elements that become either a driver for success or failure depending on how well these are understood and managed. Additionally, CCRM’s success in this field has cultivated the trust of indigenous, industrial, and government actors; also very unique here in BC.

My work with CCRM has been to analyze, develop, and articulate strategies for new project development that align with Wet'suwet'en rights and interests. Fundamentally, this means project development must uphold the Wet’suwet’en right of title per Section 35, Aboriginal rights of Canada’s Constitution Act. For achieving this, I analyzed and mapped the traditional Wet'suwet'en governance regime ‘as a system,’ and Canadian jurisprudence around Section 35 ‘as a system’ for then finding the points of alignment with standard corporate systems that would enable the creation of a collaborative governance regime and other specific instruments to work in function of protecting those rights and interests, while also meeting corporate goals.

This work has been fascinating and illuminating. I now have a much deeper understanding of the structural and socio-historical processes that underpin the conflict and specifically, a solid understanding of how Section 35 works in Canada. 

From this perspective, the Wet'suwet'en-CGL conflict is very much about the preservation of traditional Wet'suwet'en society through the exercise of ‘constitutionalized,’ pre-sovereignty occupation title rights and how these are standing in the way of economic development that either violates or seeks the surrender of those rights as a necessary part of British Columbia’s decolonization processes. Understanding this has imbued me with a much deeper appreciation of the conflicts of interest that our provincial and federal governments face, and how these have the capacity to destroy trust and undermine Canadian aspirations for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples generally. 

Another monumental challenge the governments of Canada, British Columbia, and Indigenous Nations must contend with now is the introduction of an international instrument—the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP)—into provincial and national politics. Section 35, Aboriginal rights in Canada are exceptional and absolute, notwithstanding the federal Crown has a fiduciary obligation to Indigenous peoples,  a duty they simply can not violate in this era. How new UNDRIP legislation interacts with Section 35 for upholding existing Aboriginal rights and the Aboriginal right of title will be critically important if trust is to be restored between Indigenous peoples and the rest of British Columbia.

How has your Columbia education helped you to achieve your goals?

Columbia is a world-renowned school and has the ability to open some doors that might otherwise stay closed to you. That said, it is a world-renowned school for a reason. The course work is exceptionally well developed in terms of breadth, depth, and sequencing; pedagogy that has the effect of enabling personal growth while teaching highly complex concepts. Make no mistake, the experience is very intense and takes a huge amount of work to get the most from it. Most importantly, Columbia is a community and I have been able to stay connected since graduating. I am now collaborating at a new level with professors that continue to infuse and improve my work significantly, and are now overlaping with my professional activities. This is of extraordinary value, particularly in a field wherein we strive to be scholar-practitioners. To be perfectly honest, I don’t feel as though I have left the school since graduating; rather my relationship with the school has evolved.

What advice do you have to students of the NECR program who wish to be negotiating professionals in the future?

Take time to really understand what kind of professional you want to become when you finish the program. Wanting to become a better negotiator, notionally, isn’t enough of a reason to warrant the kind of commitment a program like NECR demands. Students should try to envision themselves on the other side of completing the program. What job will they be in? With whom will they be working? And why? This also enables students to hone in on the issues during the program that will be important to the development of their professional futures.

Along with faculty at Columbia University, Carten has organized a round-table including Wet’suwet’en and British Columbian participants entitled Wet’suwet’en Governance and the CGL Pipeline Conflict: Pedagogy and Collaborative Practice(s). The roundtable will be convened as part of the International Association of Conflict Management’s (IACM) annual conference taking place in Ottawa, Canada between July 10th and 13th, 2022.

Learn more about Columbia’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution M.S. program.