Northern LNG push is 'stealing' Gitxsan chief names, allege leaders

Anger, mistrust and confusion reign in Gitxsan Nation as alleged "illegitimate" persons are being signed up for agreements about $12-billion-LNG pipeline proposals

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“There have been five that are really not chiefs, and they are signing for the chiefs, they’re speaking as that chief, when in reality they are not," said Barnes.  

"It’s really a screwed up, mix up we got up here," he added.

Johnson goes further, saying this about some of the names on the map:

“They are not chiefs, they are nobodies.  Common people.  They don’t have authority to stand up and speak in the feast hall, and they don’t have authority to make a decision in the community.  These are the people who are supposed to get you coffee and tea while you’re talking,” said Johnson, in an earlier interview.

Allegations "untrue"

Gitxsan Development Corporation CEO Rick Connors

Gitxsan Development Corporation CEO Rick Connors - GDC website

Gitxsan Development Corp’s CEO Rick Connors, based in Delta B.C, said accusations that his organization and its companies are signing up illegitimate persons are “entirely untrue.”  

Connors also said there are no "LNG deals" in front of the chiefs right now -- only agreements to let the development corporation obtain provincial "capacity funding" dollars so it can hire experts to help chiefs better understand the complex pipeline proposals.

He said there may be differences even among Gitxsan about who the rightful hereditary chiefs are.  He added, his development corporation only needs to reach agreements with 11 of 65 House groups who touch each of the pipeline corridors. 

Simoo'git Gutgwinuxws - Gitxsan House Chief Mel Wood

Simoo'git Gutgwinuxws - Gitxsan House Chief Mel Wood - personal photo

But 63-year-old Chief Mel Woods insists that his name was one of the ones “stolen.” 

“I told those guys nobody signs for us!” said Woods on Monday. 

Woods is the Gitxsan hereditary chief of the White Owl (Gutginuxw) house.  One of the proposed pipelines cuts through his territory, and test drilling for the project is now underway without his approval too.

He claims that two people – Ralph Lattie and Ardythe Wilson – have signed recent LNG agreements on his behalf without his consent.  Neither could be found for comment, though the Gitxsan Chiefs Office said they were local chiefs.

Woods said somebody from a “Gitxsan Energy” company telephoned recently advising that his House had signed an LNG agreement.  

“I told him ‘I never signed nothing, and you better send me the information', and they never did,” said Woods.

Connors said Gitxsan Development Corporation is only signing up hereditary chiefs based on a map provided by the provincial government.  He says schedule B of section 11 of a record with the Environmental Assessment office instructs who the proper chiefs are.  

“All we do is go to those people, and we understand that Mel Woods is Gutginuxw [house] …and so Mel Woods is the representative.  That doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be some ‘house business’ that gets in the way, and somebody might claim to be Gutginuxw.  That’s not our issue, and we do not take direction from that person,” said Connors.

Will the real Gixsan chiefs please stand up?

So who are the real Gitxsan house chiefs?  The province's Aboriginal Relations department said late Wednesday - it doesn't really know:

"Government has no role in determining who the appropriate hereditary chiefs or house boundaries are. These are matters for the Gitxsan to resolve internally."

"In the absence of a body that represents and speaks on behalf of the Gitxsan collective, including all hereditary chiefs, the Province relies on the territory map and contact information provided through the last signed agreement between the Province and the Gitxsan (Short Term Forestry Agreement)," wrote Robin Platts.

Skeena River near Hazelton BC - Mychaylo Prystupa

Skeena River near Hazelton, BC - Mychaylo Prystupa

Enviro concerns

Gitxsan means "People of the River of Mist" -- and its people have a deep attachment to the land.  Many are worried that LNG projects will harm much of province’s northern watershed, affecting fish and wildlife.  Also worrisome, is how the coastal export terminals may hurt critical salmon habitat.  

But provincial and industry officials, said hereditary chief William Blackwater, aren't giving the straight goods.

“They do not let out any information whatsoever.  They just come and tell you what is good for you, and that money is good for you.”

“And that’s when these guys come around too, these people from Environmental Assessment?  And they tell you how clean [it will be], and nothing is going to happen,” said Blackwater.

Gitxsan Hereditary chief William Blackwater - Mychaylo Prystupa

Gitxsan Hereditary chief William Blackwater - Mychaylo Prystupa

Johnson likewise added: 

"For ten plus thousands years, we’ve been on this land, take a look at it – it’s never [been] destroyed, it’s never been hindered in any way, shape or form, and we don’t expect it to happen today just because the Christy Clark government wants to see it happen," he said in a YouTube video.

Pipeline decisions 'a long ways away'

Connors said that the capacity funding agreements it has secured do not lock the Gitxsan into the pipelines.  They enable experts to be brought to the territory for the chiefs, to help interpret the “three inches of paper” that are often presented by outside companies, he said.

If the pipeline companies get environmental approvals from the province, the next step would be for Gitxsan to negotiate an Impact Benefit Agreement, and chiefs would make the final decision on it, said Connor.  A referendum is not being considered, he added.

Connors – a chemical engineer by profession -- admitted he, too, is frustrated by how the engagement and communication with the Gitxsan have been going.

“How do you communicate effectively to 65 people, and have those 65 people, most of which are non-conversant on this subject matter, because it is one of technicality – how do you expect them, to pass on the information on to, in the Gitxsan’s case, 12,000 people?”

Connors added Gitxsan Development Corporation was set up to facilitate business opportunities for the tribe's hereditary chiefs.  He did not to disclose its Board of Directors, but said they are well known in the territory.  

Gitxsan hereditary house chiefs have special legal significance in Canada.  A 1997 Supreme Court "Delgamuukw" decision said that they need to be consulted about impacts to their traditional lands.

Proposed LNG Projects in Gitxsan Nation

  • Prince Rupert Gas Transmission (TransCanada) pipeline: $5 billion
  • Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission pipeline (Spectra Energy): $6 to $8 billion
  • Pacific Northern Gas Looping Project (AltaGas) pipeline: $1.5 billion
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