The Gitxsan Simgiiget, who are the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan people, received a disturbing letter dated Oct. 22, 2014 from Gitxsan Treaty Society executive director Gordon Sebastian “confirming that [treaty] negotiations are in full swing.”
This must be taken as an insult to the memory of Delgamuukw (Albert Tait), Gwis Gyen (Stanley Williams), Antgulilbix (Mary Johnson), Gwa’ans (Olive Ryan) and all the other elders who gave evidence in the Delgamuukw trial of a quarter century ago which set out the precedent for aboriginal title.
Their evidence should not be squandered, for that is the only foundation upon which the Gitxsan people can enter “ . . . into a lasting relationship with our hereditary system” and by which the Crown will have to “accommodate, by agreement, legislation and policies.”
Few tribal groups in B.C. have as strong a case for aboriginal title and rights as the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en. The federal and provincial governments are surely smiling behind closed doors, knowing that the Gitxsan Treaty Society Board of Directors and Mr. Sebastian, the Board’s “Most Faithful Servant” (as he cheekily describes himself), have rushed to resume treaty negotiations without first consulting with the Gitxsan people, and giving them the opportunity to consider returning to court for our title case. Mr. Sebastian’s letter is the first time most of us have learned of the Gitxsan Treaty Society’s board’s decision to negotiate, and that it is negotiating “in full swing.”
The Gitxsan people need to know that the federal government is now pouring an incredible amount of negotiation money at tribal groups in B.C. to get what they call incremental arrangements. But nothing has changed, and more importantly, there is no government mandate to negotiate on our terms, as treaty commission money is for process, and incremental deals. No amount of negotiation money will (as Mr. Sebastian believes), “protect the wilp [Houses] and lax yip [territories].”
The treaty society board does not have a mandate to return to full-scale treaty negotiations without clear direction of the Gitxsan people. Given the recent Tsilhqot’in decision at the Supreme Court of Canada, the treaty society board has an obligation to convene meetings open to all Gitxsan people where we have the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of a title action and treaty terms. We will never be able to achieve reconciliation of our title without transparency and full community involvement.
We gave treaty negotiations a chance 20 years ago. Nothing came of it. If we are to embark on negotiations again, the Gitxsan people must be able to carefully and diligently consider their options. There are many who favour returning to court, as I do, where we have a strong case.
In effect, the legal landscape changed as a result of Tsilhqot’in and the granting of a declaration of their title. And so, the Gitxsan should now look at the litigation option with greater optimism and, instead of negotiation, should reconsider going back to court.
Neil J. Sterritt
150 Mile House, B.C.
(Editor’s note: Neil Sterritt is a Gitxsan person, and was the leader of the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council during the 1980’s when the Delgamuukw case was launched. He was also an expert and lay witness during the trial, and was on the stand for 33 days.)