A long-running blockade has ended in northern B.C. after federal officials agreed to review the finances of the Gitxsan Treaty Society, whose employees had been prevented from coming to work since protesters nailed the society's office doors and windows shut in December.
But as the review got under way, tensions were still in play, with a spokeswoman for the society saying its finances were in order and protesters insisting that millions of dollars in government funds have been funnelled through the society with little or no benefit to Gitxsan people.
Treaty society representatives agreed to allow federal officials and accounting experts to scrutinize the group's finances as a gesture of good faith, a society spokeswoman said.
"This is a result of us taking an act of good faith and saying that we will undergo an assessment for audit," society spokeswoman Beverley Clifton Percival said Monday, adding that the society provides audited financial statements to the B.C. Treaty Commission each year.
The society obtained a court order to end the blockade in the community of Hazelton soon after it began in December, but the RCMP did not enforce it. Last month, a B.C. Supreme Court judge questioned in court why the injunction was not being enforced and voiced frustration that the standoff had been allowed to continue.
The RCMP said it wanted to work with the community to reach a peaceful resolution. On Monday, barricades were removed and protesters left the site after being assured a financial review would take place.
Protesters had been pushing for a forensic audit into the society's affairs, claiming the organization has accepted loans without fully accounting how the money was being spent.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) confirmed Friday that it would conduct an assessment for a forensic audit and work with the society, as well as the B.C. Treaty Commission, in the process.
The Gitxsan, which claim a territory of some 33,000 square-kilometres in northwestern B.C., have been involved in B.C.'s treaty process since 1994 and are now at the fourth stage in a six-step process.
The federal government provides loans to Indian bands to allow them to take part in the treaty process, which can involve legal teams as well as specialists in areas such as resource development, archaeology, and fisheries and wildlife.
A spokesman for the B.C. Treaty Commission said on Monday that the commission could not disclose details of loans relating to treaty negotiations.
Protesters have alleged that the society has borrowed more than $20-million from the federal and provincial governments that has produced "little to no tangible benefit to the Gitxsan people."
The spark for the blockade came in December, when a Gitxsan representative – claiming to speak on behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs – announced that the Gitxsan had agreed to become equity partners in Enbridge's Northern Gateway project. Other Gitxsan leaders claimed the pact had been reached without community consent and protesters barricaded the building.
The contentious Enbridge pact became a focal point for broader questions.
"We're asking for the treaty society … to show accountability for the money that they have received on the Gitxsan people's behalf," John Olson, a spokesman for the protesters, said Monday in an interview. The protest group is known as the Gitxsan Unity Movement.
As of last week, Enbridge said its deal with the Gitxsan had not been rescinded. Enbridge has agreed to make 10 per cent of its proposed $5.5-billion project available to aboriginal groups that have reserves or claim traditional territories within 80 kilometres of the proposed pipeline right-of-way. Enbridge says 60 per cent of aboriginal groups that were eligible for an equity stake have signed on to the project, although native groups have disputed that tally.