Locals waiting on Gitxsan
Terrace fishing guides and their clients were waiting with baited breath this weekend to see what action the Gitxsan First Nation would take to make a statement about territorial land claims.
A letter from the Gitxsan Treaty Society (GTS) from July 15 said in no uncertain terms that action would be taken to halt not only all fishing by non-Gitxsan in their 33,000 square kilometre traditional territory but also CN Rail, LNG pipeline work and other industry.
The eviction was planned to begin Monday, and last night Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs issued a release stating they would begin blocking the railway at 10 p.m. But reports last night indicate that action was delayed.
The release says that an Aug. 4 meeting between chiefs, federal and provincial officials, and CN Rail failed to produce satisfactory results and they are following through on the eviction notice issued to CN. It also invites federal and provincial representatives to meet Thursday, Aug. 7 "to come to a solution and avoid further closures."
In the past weeks anglers were already being blocked from the rivers in the area extending east from Legate Creek, about 50 kilometres east of Terrace, and ending west of Smithers.
Trees blocked boat launches and anglers were asked to leave, indicating the controlled strategy of action was happening ahead of schedule.
For local guide outfitter Stan Doll of Terrace, it’s been business as usual, however, he and other guides have reported an influx of letters from clients asking if their summer fishing trip plans are still possible.
“I have had to reassure clients,” said Doll, adding that he is less concerned than upstream guides because the western edge of Gitxsan land falls outside of many of the major tributaries typically fished by Terrace guides.
Doll said earlier this month the provincial government sent northwest outfitters a letter with recommendations about how to deal with potential confrontation, and also reaffirming their legal right to continue fishing.
“The province is aware that the eviction notice may result in confrontational situations with individuals and businesses operating within some areas of asserted Gitxsan Traditional Territory,” said a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Branch to local outfitters.
“As a potentially impacted business, I recommend you have a safety plan in place that includes preparation for encounters with protesters that may be videotaped and publicized.”
The letter goes on to say that “In the event of an incident, I recommend that you and your staff refrain from responding directly, and observe carefully, remove yourselves from the situation as quickly as possible, and immediately report to the RCMP.”
During the weeks leading up to the eviction, it became apparent that not all members of the Gitxsan First Nation agreed with the widely-publicized eviction plan by the treaty society and the hereditary chiefs it represents.
The chiefs of houses (wilps) not represented by the GTS disagreed with the extent of the planned action because they have agreements with fish guiding companies and need the business.
A different group of hereditary chiefs called the United Chiefs wrote their own press release addressed to the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation speaking against the eviction strategy presented by GTS negotiator Bev Clifton Percival.
“The United Chiefs are not in agreement with Ms. Percival’s statements that Gitxsan intend to evict third parties from our territories,” said the statement signed by hereditary chiefs Earl Muldon, Norman Stephens, Larry Patsey dated July 28.
Another house, Wilps Gwininitxw, echoed this sentiment.
“While Wilps Gwininitxw supports the western Gitxsan Houses regarding the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum AIP land grab, it does not support the eviction notice for all Gitxsan territories,” said a statement from the wilp with more than 200 members.
The AIP mentioned in this statement, short for Agreement in Principle, is the central demand of the Gitxsan, however, there is disagreement over how those demands should be put to the government. Both those who supported the eviction and those who didn’t were in agreement that the province should revise its treaty plans with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum bands and remove land given to these bands which the courts in the past have said belongs to the Gitxsan.
According to Percival, the money offer from the province of $12 million tied to two natural gas pipelines that would pass through their territory was not good enough to stop the eviction and missed the point.
“As usual with the crown, they just kind of come up with a formula and that’s what they use. There is no negotiation in there and it’s a take it or leave it approach,” she said.
Currently the government is trying to get the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas treaties approved by the federal government, but the Gitxsan want the application withdrawn and negotiations to take place first to resolve the disagreement over the disputed area that takes in two rivers near Gitsegukla and Kitwanga.
TransCanada, the company currently doing pre-work on two natural gas pipelines passing through the area, said it has a good relationship with the Gitxsan but that in light of the eviction notices for all industry they are respecting the Gitxsan’s desires.
“We are seeking clarification from them to determine if our environmental and geotechnical fieldwork on their traditional territory can continue,” said a statement from TransCanada last week.
The possibility of a block to transportation, fishing and industry is unsettling in the much-used corridor.
Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition leader Shannon McPhail said that hers and other organizations that aim to preserve salmon stocks in local rivers have received financial aid from guiding companies.
“Now they feel unwelcome,” she said. “The last thing we need in this community is another reason to be divided ... some people will take this and make it worse.”
Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Luutkudziiwvs said that everyone should relax.
“The fish will be back next year,” he said.