There is no legal hurdle for the B.C. and federal governments to negotiate a treaty with the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan, says the head of the B.C. Treaty Commission.
Top officials within the federal and provincial governments have recently ramped up talks with the hereditary chiefs on a unique proposal to settle the 130-year-old question of the Gitxsans' aboriginal rights and title.
The proposal does not have the full backing of the elected band chiefs, but Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the independent treaty commission, said B.C. and Ottawa should not shy away from dealing directly with the traditional leaders of the Gitxsan.
"Treaty negotiations are a way for people to determine for themselves the type of government they are going to have," she said. "If the Gitxsan people are saying, we want our hereditary forms of government, that's for the Gitxsan people to make that decision."
The treaty team for the Gitxsan is proposing a groundbreaking solution to the land-claims impasse: They are willing to relinquish status Indian benefits – their reserves, tax exemptions, housing and other financial supports – in exchange for a share of resources from their traditional territories, which cover 33,000 square kilometres of northwestern British Columbia.
The scale of that claim, Ms. Pierre predicted, may prove to be the more significant hurdle. "The only precedent that I would see is that every first nation that enters treaty talks starts with that position. It's just a matter of what you acquire at the end of negotiations," she said.
Gitxsan negotiator Beverly Clifton Percival said the alternative governance model her team has proposed is democratic – it just doesn't involve voting.
"I can't take my position and run with what I think is best. I have to do a lot of different levels of consultation and at the end of the day we have to come out with a consensus decision," she said. "That to me is true democracy."
The proposal has been circulated within the Gitxsan, but there is no way for either the federal or provincial government to gauge at this time the strength of support in the community.
Several treaties in B.C. in recent years have fallen apart at the final stages of ratification, making the question of community support an important calculation in deciding how much to invest in pursuing a treaty.
Adam Leamy of Northwest Public Affairs has a suggestion: He advocates that native bands take a lesson from election campaigns to consult and cajole their membership in advance of heading to the treaty table. That way, when governments sit down with native leaders, they know those leaders can deliver their community's support.
"They need to be able to deliver their people – otherwise we can't invest our efforts, our hope, into these proposals," he said. "It shouldn't be left to chance … You've got to campaign and make sure you have got your people behind you who are willing to vote for it."
Kim Baird, the elected chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, landed the first modern, urban treaty after a tough battle within her own community. She offered no comment on the Gitxsan proposal, but said the treaty team should be ready for a fight to sell the concept of change.
"It's a tall order, to replace the only known benefit under the Indian Act with the hope we can improve; people don't know if we can succeed with that," she said. "People worry we'll be worse off – which would be a terrible place to be."