pipelines

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.