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The courage and dignity of the Gitxsan

Last week, Elmer Derrick, a Hereditary Chief of the Gitxsan Nation, and head negotiator of the Gitxsan Treaty Society, signed an agreement with Enbridge in support of the Northern Gateway. The proposed pipeline will be a $6 billion project that once completed would transport oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat.

The Gitxsan Nation has broken new ground in a number of other vital areas. The landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Delgamuukw case affirmed that aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by Section 35(1) of the Constitution. According to one of our pre-eminent constitutional scholars, Gerald Beaudoin, “Aboriginal title is, therefore, in substance, a right to territory and encompasses exclusive use and occupation.” This judgment has had far reaching implications for our understanding of Aboriginal title, which the Government of British Columbia had said were “extinguished”. No so, found the Supreme Court.

The Gitxsan fought long and hard for the recognition of their rights and were forced to resort to the courts for this affirmation. Since this legal vindication, the Gitxsan have been struggling once more, only this time at the treaty-negotiating table to bring force and effect to the Supreme Court’s judgment. The Gitxsan’s key propositions are these: They want to be Canadians with no special status and enjoying all the rights and responsibilities that the rest of us take for granted; they do not want to be handcuffed any longer under the arcane auspices of the Indian Act; and theywant to be able to unlock their economies by developing their lands and resources under the laws of Canada.

There are over sixty “Houses” led by hereditary chiefs across the territory. Under Gitxsan law and custom, the Houses are masters of their lands and these chiefs speak for their people. When Mr. Derrick says that he is acting on the authority of chiefs, it means that he speaks for a majority of them.

Unanimity – like in any group – is a highly unusual thing to achieve. Since the announcement, the press has drawn attention to some dissenting voices that are not in favour of the pipeline. Opposition to the deal emanates principally from four Band Chiefs within the First Nation. While elected, they are elected by small numbers, have no jurisdiction outside of the boundaries of their small reserves, some of whom are not even Gitxsan. They also fear losing their jobs if the objective of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs to become regular Canadians, governed like the rest of us, is ever realized. The Hereditary Chiefs, by contrast, represent all of the territory and all of the people, a majority of whom are off-Reserve.  And a majority of those have said yes to Enbridge and the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Unemployment on Gitxsan territory is over 90 percent. Suicide rates among their young in Hazelton and surrounding communities is appallingly high. So too is the incidents of drug and alcohol addiction. This is yet another lost generation in the making. Despair is commonplace.
So, when the Gitxsan Nation – through their duly authorized representatives – tells us that they seek inclusion, we should all listen very carefully.

When they tell us that they support the pipeline project and other responsible economic development initiatives, we should listen. When they assure us that their solemn interest in a sustainable and healthy environment does not conflict with economic opportunity, we should refrain from preaching from the comfort of our urban altars. And when they plead with us to be included in making Canada stronger and more united, we should embrace them.

When I was Chairman of Ridley Terminals, a federal Crown Corporation, I asked the Minister of Transport, Lawrence Cannon, to recommend to the federal cabinet that they appoint Elmer Derrick to the Board of Directors. He did. Four years later and Mr. Derrick and the Gitxsan have been unflinching champions of the Port of Prince Rupert and the Northern Pacific Gateway Strategy. The Gateway is a vital trade link between Canada and the world. The rail line that carries Canadian goods to foreign ports – including a wide variety of commodities  – runs through Gitxsan territory.
Now they are signaling that they are prepared to take another giant leap by supporting the people of Alberta. They understand that they are also helping to build the Canadian economy and show the world that First Nations want to be full participating and contributing partners in Canada’s future.

Canadians should applaud the acts of statesmanship, courage, and dignity shown by the Gitxsan people and other First Nations across Canada. What the Gitxsan Chiefs have done once again is selflessly demonstrate a profound willingness to create a better Canada. We have much to learn from them.

Mr. Veniez is a Vancouver businessman and former candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada.

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