First Nations

As evictions loom, even a landmark court ruling can’t bring certainty on Gitxsan land

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Hazelton, a sleepy, northwestern B.C. town where a dispute involving the Gitxsan First Nation, province and federal government is playing out. It was a challenging story to write, with a lot of important background and a wealth of varying, meaningful opinions. It was tough to compile everything into a cohesive story, giving appropriate space to each element and still fit the word count. Much was ultimately cut; the story could have been twice as long if I had been given the space.

The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have set an Aug. 4 deadline for an eviction notice sent to sports fishermen, loggers and CN Rail in an escalation of protest over a territorial overlap claim. To the Gitxsan First Nation, this is not a just a story about jobs or land, but the history and future of its people. This will be a story to watch in coming weeks.

A totem pole in the village of Kitwanga, B.C., part of the Gitxsan Nation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

A totem pole in the village of Kitwanga, B.C., part of the Gitxsan Nation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The signs outside Norman Stephens’ Hazelton, B.C., hardware store make clear his stance on pipelines: On one, the letters LNG are crossed out with a red X; on another, two salmon – one dead – face each other, illustrating the potential risks involved.

“Face the future,” the latter reads. “Don’t frack with our salmon!”

Mr. Stephens, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan First Nation, is adamant there is no place in the sleepy, northwestern B.C. community for such projects. And after a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that underscored aboriginal title and rights, he is confident the Gitxsan will have final say on the matter.

A faction of the Gitxsan – one not including Mr. Stephens – is relying on the Supreme Court ruling to back eviction notices issued to Canadian National Railway, forestry companies and some fishing lodges that also operate on land the Gitxsan claim. The eviction deadline is Monday.

“After the Tsilhqot’in decision, the ball is in our court,” Mr. Stephens said. “We have full control over it.”

But while many hailed the Tsilhqot’in court ruling as a game-changer, the future of the Gitxsan territory is anything but clear. Division within the group, stemming from long-standing differences of opinion among some hereditary chiefs, has created uncertainty. The community is now at a crossroads for its future, needing to balance economic goals and environmental concerns while reconciling outward conflicts with governments and within the group itself.

The main issue has nothing to do with liquefied natural gas or pipelines. It’s a touchy territorial overlap claim: The Gitxsan First Nation say that in negotiating treaty agreements with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum bands, which belong to the Tsimshian First Nation, the B.C. government illegally gave away pieces of Gitxsan land.

The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, a group that represents most but not all of the chiefs, broke off pipeline discussions with the government on June 21 for the same reason. The eviction notice is an escalation of protest to force the government’s hand in resolving the issue, said Gitxsan Treaty Society negotiator Gwaans, whose English name is Beverley Clifton Percival.

But while most of the nation’s hereditary chiefs supported the June decision to end LNG talks, only eight signed last month’s eviction notice – most of whom are directly affected by the overlap issue. Those who oppose the action say sports fishermen and loggers are being caught in the crossfire.

Among non-native locals, the eviction notice sparked mixed responses: anger, uncertainty, confusion, indifference. Martin Knutson, who owns Skeena Meadows Wildlife Preseve with his wife, said it is creating uncertainty in a community that is already economically depressed.

“Uncertainty is what drives away business. What is needed is certainty as to how our provincial and federal governments are going to deal with this and what the rules are going to be going forward. Industry runs away from uncertainty.”

Shannon McPhail, executive director at the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said in the past week she has received e-mails, phone calls and visits from more than 100 people trying to figure out what is happening and why.

“It’s a very confusing and unfortunate situation,” said Ms. McPhail from her office in Hazelton. “I believe it has made enemies out of allies – but it has started a very important conversation that we have to have as a region.”

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

From residential school to the NHL: the remarkable story of Fred Sasakamoose

sasakamoose

Fred Sasakamoose, a residential school survivor and the first First Nations NHL hockey player, sits in the Vancouver Giants dressing room where the WHL hockey team unveiled First Nations tribute jerseys in Vancouver, Sept. 19, 2013.
(DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

There weren’t many bright moments in the nine years Fred Sasakamoose suffered through residential school, but one came six years in, when he was 12.

Up until then, he had quietly endured the physical, emotional and sexual abuse, pushing aside the thoughts of exacting revenge that so often came to mind. He diligently completed his daily chores, making the beds, scrubbing the floors and doing farm work that included chopping firewood and milking two cows daily.

Then one day, he was told he had “earned” a pair of ice skates. He beamed at the memory.

He and his schoolmates fashioned hockey sticks out of plywood, pucks out of tree branches and tape. For the three more years he spent at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask., hockey games became his salvation.

“I wanted to be a hockey player,” said Mr. Sasakamoose, who turns 80 this year. “I wanted to be a star, better than anybody else. I wanted to be – and I got to be.”

He went on to become the first Canadian aboriginal player in the National Hockey League, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1953-1954.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

National Truth and Reconciliation event opens in Vancouver

A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and mail)

A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)

By Andrea Woo – Vancouver

More than 60 years later, Amy George still vividly remembers the snap of the long, black strap hitting her little hands, the pain, and the resulting welts that would render her incapable of gripping a pen, or the chains of a swing set.

But the abuse she endured at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver went far beyond the physical: For nine years, starting when she was six, she was taught by nuns to hate herself from the inside out, she says, to be ashamed of who she was.

“I was taught the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian,” Ms. George told a crowd of thousands on the opening day of the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver on Wednesday. “[They would say,] ‘You’re so hard to teach because you’re so dumb.’ And that stayed with me for the rest of my life.”

This week’s four-day event, put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between former residential school students, first nations groups and the government of Canada.

The commission, established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in more than 120 years of residential schools in Canada, is expected to deliver a full report by 2014.

Each of the national events has been designated a theme under the first nations’ seven sacred teachings; it was fitting for Ms. George, now a frank, 72-year-old Tsleil-Waututh elder, to speak at the one fashioned in the theme of honesty.

In an interview afterward, Ms. George said it is her hope that reopening these wounds and sharing such stories will help the public better understand the struggles of the first nations.

“A lot of our people suffer from addictions,” said Ms. George, who herself has struggled with drugs and alcohol. “The general population has no idea. They just say we’re a bunch of lazy, good for nothing people. We are a people coming out of oppression and genocide. Those schools were built so that we would die.”

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Nemiah Valley, British Columbia

On a work trip this past weekend up to Nemiah Valley, in British Columbia’s central interior, I got the chance to visit Chilko Lake. In short, it is STUNNING. Clear, turquoise water, breathtaking colours. Reminds me of Banff’s Lake Louise. Easily the most beautiful body of water I’ve seen to date.

Gettin’ my Simba on

My view from there (photos really don’t do it justice):

The reason I was there was to cover the Nemiah Valley Rodeo and Mountain Race. There’s an extended intro about it here, which ran with a page of photos from photojournalist John Lehmann, but those are not yet online. An audio slideshow is in the works; I’ll post that up when it’s ready. (EDIT: Here it is.)

In the meantime, a description of the mountain race, which takes place during the rodeo intermission on both Saturday and Sunday, and is the highlight of the event:

The mountain race, founded by the Xeni Gwet’in band of the Chilcotin nation, sees riders barrel down a steep hillside, over rocks and gravel, into creeks and beaver dams and around dangerous turns through blinding plumes of dirt and dust. Some riders emerge dripping wet, some are stalled in the swamp and mud and some are tossed from their horses along the way.

It takes riders about 20 minutes to reach the starting point up the hill and, on average, 90 seconds to get down the three-quarter-mile trail.

This is cowboy Howie Lulua, who won on both days:

His brother, Jimmy Lulua, ended up falling off his horse on the second day of the race, breaking his leg. He had to be medivaced out; his horse shot.

A few other miscellaneous shots from the trip:

John Lehmann realizing he’ll have to lug thousands of dollars worth of equipment through two bodies of water to properly shoot the mountain race.

Tie-down roping