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As evictions loom, even a landmark court ruling can’t bring certainty on Gitxsan land Add to ...

In an effort to find a balance between economic prosperity and honouring the land, some Gitxsan First Nation chiefs are issuing eviction notices to outsiders this week. Are the region's aboriginal leaders tearing their community apart?

A totem pole in the village of Kitwanga, B.C., part of the Gitxsan Nation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The signs outside Norman Stephens’ Hazelton, B.C., hardware store make clear his stance on pipelines: On one, the letters LNG are crossed out with a red X; on another, two salmon – one dead – face each other, illustrating the potential risks involved.

“Face the future,” the latter reads. “Don’t frack with our salmon!”

Mr. Stephens, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan First Nation, is adamant there is no place in the sleepy, northwestern B.C. community for such projects. And after a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that underscored aboriginal title and rights, he is confident the Gitxsan will have final say on the matter.

A faction of the Gitxsan – one not including Mr. Stephens – is relying on the Supreme Court ruling to back eviction notices issued to Canadian National Railway, forestry companies and some fishing lodges that also operate on land the Gitxsan claim. The eviction deadline is Monday.

“After the Tsilhqot’in decision, the ball is in our court,” Mr. Stephens said. “We have full control over it.”

Gitxsan First Nation hereditary chief Norman Stephens at his hardware store in New Hazelton, B.C., in March 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

But while many hailed the Tsilhqot’in court ruling as a game-changer, the future of the Gitxsan territory is anything but clear. Division within the group, stemming from long-standing differences of opinion among some hereditary chiefs, has created uncertainty. The community is now at a crossroads for its future, needing to balance economic goals and environmental concerns while reconciling outward conflicts with governments and within the group itself.

The main issue has nothing to do with liquefied natural gas or pipelines. It’s a touchy territorial overlap claim: The Gitxsan First Nation say that in negotiating treaty agreements with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum bands, which belong to the Tsimshian First Nation, the B.C. government illegally gave away pieces of Gitxsan land.

The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, a group that represents most but not all of the chiefs, broke off pipeline discussions with the government on June 21 for the same reason. The eviction notice is an escalation of protest to force the government’s hand in resolving the issue, said Gitxsan Treaty Society negotiator Gwaans, whose English name is Beverley Clifton Percival.

But while most of the nation’s hereditary chiefs supported the June decision to end LNG talks, only eight signed last month’s eviction notice – most of whom are directly affected by the overlap issue. Those who oppose the action say sports fishermen and loggers are being caught in the crossfire.

Among non-native locals, the eviction notice sparked mixed responses: anger, uncertainty, confusion, indifference. Martin Knutson, who owns Skeena Meadows Wildlife Preseve with his wife, said it is creating uncertainty in a community that is already economically depressed.

“Uncertainty is what drives away business. What is needed is certainty as to how our provincial and federal governments are going to deal with this and what the rules are going to be going forward. Industry runs away from uncertainty.”

Shannon McPhail, executive director at the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said in the past week she has received e-mails, phone calls and visits from more than 100 people trying to figure out what is happening and why.

“It’s a very confusing and unfortunate situation,” said Ms. McPhail from her office in Hazelton. “I believe it has made enemies out of allies – but it has started a very important conversation that we have to have as a region.”

The Gitxsan territories comprise about 33,000 square kilometers of land – an area approximately the size of Belgium. The nation is organized into a complex structure involving wilps, or house groups, each led by a hereditary chief. There are roughly 60 such chiefs in all.

The Gitxsan are hoping to build on the momentum of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent Tsilhqot’in land title decision – which underscored aboriginal title and rights – but there is a lack of consensus on how. Four Gitxsan bands, and some hereditary chiefs, have in the past sued the Gitxsan Treaty Society, which negotiates with the B.C. Treaty Commission and Crowns, arguing it has no right to speak on their behalf.

The treaty society and its supporters favour an “alternative governance model” that would, among other things, remove the Gitxsan from the Indian Act and make them “ordinary, tax-paying Canadians,” albeit with rights to their territory and resources. Opponents reject that approach, fearing the loss of Indian status and reserve lands would put them in a worse social and economic state than they are in now.

Hereditary chief Yvonne Lattie, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the GTS, said the eviction notice only fanned the flames of the long-burning dispute.

Hereditary chief Yvonne Lattie in March 2013 in Old Hazelton, B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

“That eviction notice came from the treaty office; it did not come from the chiefs,” she said. “I’m a hereditary chief and our house already has agreements in place with guide outfitters and sports fishermen on our territory.”

Many of the sports fishermen are local residents, Ms. Lattie said, and to harm their livelihoods would have a ripple effect on the local economy.

The lawsuit – known as the Spookw, after another plaintiff – aimed to challenge the legitimacy of the Gitxsan Treaty Society and ultimately force its dismantling. But the plaintiffs lost, with the judge concluding those opposed to the treaty process have the ability to raise their concerns within the treaty society.

It was a flabbergasting judgment to those who want nothing to do with the society, like Mr. Stephens.

“The society is the Gitxsan Treaty Society, set up to negotiate treaty for all Gitxsan,” he said in an interview at a Hazelton hardware store he owns and operates. “The majority of the Gitxsan don’t agree with the treaty process, don’t want to be part of the treaty process, but the judge is expecting them to go and join if they want to stop it.”

The Spookw plaintiffs have filed an appeal.

In December of 2011, Mr. Stephens, a member of a group called the Gitxsan United Chiefs, marched with dozens of other protesters to the GTS offices to nail the doors shut. That stand came three days after a lone hereditary chief and GTS negotiator, Elmer Derrick, announced the Gitxsan had agreed to partner with Enbridge Inc. for its $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project and would be taking a $7-million equity stake.

The Enbridge news triggered a blockade that lasted six months and resulted in a reversal of the agreement.

The chiefs opposing the GTS say the Enbridge deal was a turning point in their relationship with the society.

GTS negotiator Ms. Clifton Percival acknowledged the past issues, but she maintains the society has the support of the majority of chiefs. Disagreements are expected but an open dialogue among chiefs, and solidarity as a society, is needed to move forward as a nation, she said.

“I don’t know what to do with that but keep my hand out. You can slap it, you can ignore me, but I’m going to keep my hand out.”

Skayan (English name Anita Davis) on her traditional territory Lax Skiik, about 50 kilometres north of Terrace, B.C., in July 2014. (Andrea Woo/The Globe and Mail)

In the days leading up to the Aug. 4 eviction deadline, members of affected houses have hand-delivered and posted eviction notices around town. There are whispers of costly “service disruptions” planned for the following day, with the primary target being CN Rail, but Ms. Clifton Percival said only that the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs are prepared to negotiate.

“We don’t want confrontation or violence or anything; we just want to deal with these issues head-on in B.C.”

CN Rail, which Ms. Clifton Percival has said expressed interest in setting up a meeting with the Gitxsan, declined a request for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, spokesman Mark Hallman said only that the company “has long-standing, co-operative relationships with Gitxsan hereditary and elected chiefs and the company is currently in discussion with them about this matter.”

John Rustad, B.C. Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, said the province is working to resolve the issue.

“Ultimately, shared territory disputes are best resolved by the First Nations themselves,” he said in a statement. “However, the ministry has been working closely with the Gitxsan, Kitsumkalum and Kitselas in an effort to facilitate an approach to resolve their issues that works for all parties.”

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