“But if [oil] dirties the water, it will kill the animals and if it kills the animals, it will kill the people and everything will die, mommy!” – as stated by a six-year-old Gitxsan girl to her mother, Melanie Smoke
By Hilary Zornow
Despite the bitter bone-chilling cold of a northwest winter, the Gitxsan Unity Movement has maintained a steady fire in front of the Gitxsan Treaty Society office. They stand guard to ensure the $7 million deal signed by Elmer Derrick and Enbridge – that the majority contend was signed without Gitxsan knowledge or consent – is not upheld by the stakeholders in the proposed Northern Gateway project.
On December 5th 2011, three days after the controversial agreement shook the Gitxsan Nation, a movement began to seek answers and ensure the Gitxsan re-claim a voice that had been stolen.
Residents of northwest BC are smack dab in the sights of the corporate conglomerate and political agenda that aims to bulldoze the territory with miles of pipeline for a handsome profit. The guardians of the fire at the Gitxsan Treaty Society office (GTS) ask, “what price do we put on the future of our children?”
Karista Olson is one of the youth representatives and estimates 80 per cent of the “regulars” (individuals who faithfully come to the fire daily to show their support) are under the age of 25.
“Kids get it, they understand,” says Karista, “the idea of their home changing is terrifying for them.”
When asked why she spends day after day at the fire she states, “this is my heritage, my inheritance, this has been left in trust for the elders to protect for us. I’ll be damned if a few individuals can put that in jeopardy and I not say anything.”
These words are felt in a deeper vein at the quiet presence of the unborn child that is growing in young Samantha Muskascapo’s belly – a devotee to the fire who has fought through sleep deprivation and her dedication to the cause speaks louder than words.
Another young activist, Alex Harris, explains, “it is empowering being here [and it shows] we will stand up for ourselves when it is necessary.”
The scene in front of the GTS has been misinterpreted as being led by “radicals” or “trouble-makers”, but time spent at the quiet action tells a first timer otherwise. The fire is comforting and as Melanie Smoke explains, the fire is regularly fed sacred offerings with prayers to ancestors for help and “forgiveness for those who created the chaos”.
The fire is as much a spiritual awakening as it is a movement and seems to have a personality all on its own. The fire is a peace maker as John Olson (also known as Jonathan Runningbear) states. “I think something is happening in our nation that is bringing us together, we are talking because we have something in common. This is bigger than any minor scuffles, it’s bigger than anything I have ever seen.”
Alex Harris explains, “We aren’t just a bunch of angry people, there is a lot going on in the background.”
With legal action on both sides looming it is clear that the Enbridge announcement was a catalyst for underlying issues.
While solidarity against Enbridge is at the fore-front of the movement, the deep-seeded deficiencies within the GTS that lead to the “deal” have long been an issue of contention in the Gitxsan community.
This fact has created a blurry line between support and opposition to the movement at the GTS, notes Karista Olson. The issue is complicated, but around the fire it is unanimous everyone says “NO TO ENBRIDGE”.
“This is part of our ayookw now, our story…we are the fire keepers for the generation to come,” says Dan Yunkws, “this is not just a First Nations issue, if you breathe and drink water you will be affected. There is no such thing as an oil clean-up.”
The Gitxsan Unity Movement began as Gitxsan Against Enbridge in early December. The goal of the movement is to bring harmony between the Gitxsan government and the values, law, and will of the Gitxsan.
The chiefs shut down the GTS office on Dec. 5 because they were acting contrary to Gitxsan law and values. The Gitxsan Unity movement is 100% volunteer driven, with Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs and members working in the best interest of our land, culture, and people. More information can be found at www.gitxsanagainstenbridge.com.
The Gitxsan Unity Movement would like to thank the community and neighbouring Nations for the out-pouring of support of food, fire wood and prayers. Your positive energy has fed the spirit of the movement.
Hilary Zornow is a Gitxsan from Gitanmaax who now lives in Terrace, BC