It’s broken and needs to be fixed

A crucial meeting that’s happening within days of the Gitxsan people in the Hazeltons threatens to perpetuate a deep-seated problem.

By Neil Sterritt

A crucial meeting that’s happening within days of the Gitxsan people in the Hazeltons threatens to perpetuate a deep-seated problem of how a key organization there functions.

It’s called the Gitxsan Treaty Society and its job for the past 18 years has been to represent the Gitxsan people in their move toward a better life.

But the problem with the society has always been how its leadership is selected and how it reflects the desires of the Gitxsan people.

That’s led to an ongoing court case which resulted in a March 2012 ruling by BC Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan. He found the society didn’t have any members as such and without members, it therefore didn’t have a properly constituted board of directors and management group.

But Mr. Justice McEwan did provide a solution, telling the society to develop a “community-based process” to resolve the situation.

The Gitxsan Treaty Society response was to hold a meeting June 26 so that, and this is using the society’s own words, “each Gitxsan Wilp (House) will have an opportunity to select the members of the [society] who will have the power to select the society’s directors.’

Unfortunately, the response from the treaty society did not respect the court’s directions.

First, the meeting, which was held at Gitsegukla, should have been open to all Gitxsan people. It was not. Key voices were excluded. Secondly, some Wilp Chiefs do not consult with their house members, who are thereby excluded from the discussion.

Finally, there was only a small number of people, approximately 50, at the meeting.

That meant the meeting and the outcome could be organized and conducted in much the same dictatorial way as Gitxsan Treaty Society meetings since 1994.

Why weren’t ads placed in Smithers and Terrace newspapers beginning a month or more ago, with an open invitation to all Gitxsan people, and a ‘plain speak’ explanation of the meeting’s purpose?

Why didn’t the treaty society provide options to the Gitxsan people, such as:

Option 1. Participatory Organization: Here, all Gitxsan persons have the right to participate and vote on major matters affecting the nation, and those members adopt a process whereby they together appoint qualified board members.

Option 2.    Representative Organization: Here, segments of the Gitxsan population (communities, or Hereditary Chiefs, or…), in a broadly participatory fashion, choose representatives to a body that in turn appoints qualified board members. Instead, the treaty society simply imposes its will on the community.

The society now proposes to hold a three-day meeting in July.

It is being held to endorse the process apparently agreed to by those at the June 26 meeting, sparsely attended as it was.

Will that meeting be the “community-based model” (open to all) as the Supreme Court has directed? Will all Gitxsan be able to speak during the meeting?

Will there be a qualified, independent officer supervising closed ballots so everyone can comfortably vote “yes” or “no” on the society proposal and on the BC treaty process?

Should the treaty society answer “yes” to these questions, it might achieve in part the Supreme Court’s order.

We’ve already seen what happens when Gitxsan people aren’t included in their own affairs and that was the blockade of the treaty society’s offices in Hazelton after the now-discredited Enbridge deal was released last December.

The same people that mounted the blockade removed it in response to the start of a financial audit of the society’s affairs.

There is an air of anticipation around the audit’s results. And what if the audit returns a clean bill of health?

A failure of the society to reform from within will still leave the Gitxsan people with a serious governance problem.

Neil Sterritt was president of the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council, the political organization which took the federal and provincial governments to court, resulting in an advancement of native rights and title through the Delgamuukw decision of 1997. He is now a consultant.