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Gitxsan blockade coming to an end as forensic audit begins

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A blockade of the Gitxsan Treaty Society office in Old Hazelton in Northern B.C. will be dismantled Monday when federal officials arrive to launch a forensic audit into the society's affairs.

Protesters who have been on the site since early December have been demanding such an audit, alleging the society has borrowed as much as $20-million for treaty negotiations over more than a decade with little or no tangible benefits for the Gitxsan.

Officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, along with accountants, are expected to be on the scene Monday, when the long-running blockade will be dismantled.

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"It is happening at 9 o'clock in the morning," said Norm Stephens, a lead protester. "That's when we will take the blockade down. We've wanted a forensic audit all along. That was our goal.

"We're well on our way to accountability."

On Friday, an Aboriginal Affairs spokesman wrote in an e-mail that, "we take allegations of mismanagement of public dollars very seriously."

"On June 11, 2012, Deloitte and Touche will be on-site conducting an assessment for a forensic audit of certain allegations relating to the Gitxsan Treaty Society.

"AANDC is taking a collaborative approach to this assessment for a forensic audit, which includes the Gitxsan Treaty Society and the B.C. Treaty Commission."

The spokeswoman said the agency would not provide further information on the process.

Concerns about the society's financial affairs, along with disagreement over a proposed new governance model for the Gitxsan, have been percolating for years and are part of a court action launched in 2008 and still under way. But tensions boiled over in December, when news broke that the Gitxsan had signed a deal to become part-owners of Northern Gateway, a twin-pipeline project that would funnel Alberta crude oil to B.C. for shipping to Asian markets.

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Hereditary chief Elmer Derrick, claiming to speak on behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, unveiled the deal, citing the jobs and economic benefits it would bring to a community wrestling with poverty and high unemployment rates.

Almost immediately, however, other Gitxsan leaders disavowed the deal, claiming that Mr. Derrick had acted without proper authority.

As of last week, Enbridge said the deal has not been rescinded.

An environmental review of the $5.5-billion project is currently under way. Enbridge said last week that 60 per cent of aboriginal communities eligible for a stake in the project had signed on as equity partners. Coastal First Nations, an alliance of B.C. coastal bands, disputed that tally, saying it knew of only two groups west of Prince George that had agreed to become equity partners in the project.

There are about 45 native groups that have reserves or claim traditional territories along the pipeline route. Enbridge says it can't name the groups involved because of confidentiality agreements.

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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