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Land ownership changes mark new chapter in Nisga'a history Add to ...

There is no word in the Nisga'a language for mortgage. But it will become part of the Nisga'a lexicon in Lavinia Clayton's lifetime.

Ms. Clayton's white-sided home, with a tidy, fenced garden of budding lilacs, would blend into a typical suburban setting.

But it sits in a tiny village with gravel roads, overlooking the mouth of the Nass River in northwest B.C. On her walls, family photos chart the generations that were denied the right to own, sell, and borrow against the equity in their homes.

The steady gaze of Charles Barton, his wife Emily at his side, is captured in an undated image. In 1887, Mr. Barton was part of the delegation that travelled to Victoria from Gingolx to demand that the B.C. government settle the question of who owns the land where the Nisga'a reside. They were turned away.

The Nisga'a persisted and the question was settled 10 years ago when, in a historic decision, the B.C. and federal governments agreed to grant ownership of 2,000 square kilometres of the Nass Valley, a spectacular landscape of snow-capped mountains and lava fields.

The agreement, which combines ownership of a large swath of land with broad law-making powers, was held up as the way forward to settle conflict over aboriginal rights, especially in B.C. where most Crown land is still subject to land claims - but settlements since have been few and far between.

Meanwhile, the Nisga'a government is once again breaking new ground, seeking to answer its own land question: Who owns the property underneath Ms. Clayton's home?

With the recent decision to allow private ownership of residential parcels within its villages, the Nisga'a government is now developing a land registry so that Ms. Clayton and others will be allowed to do with their homes as they wish - including selling to non-Nisga'a buyers - unlocking a new generation of home-based entrepreneurs.

"They say we own our own property - we can sell it to anybody, I guess," Ms. Clayton said, musing that she may take out a mortgage and expand her eight-room bed and breakfast, or sell the business and retire. Come this fall, she will have the choice.

This will change the face of the Nisga'a lands, but they are approaching this transformation with care. There are many other issues that have demanded the attention of this still-fledgling government - and Canada's first nations will be watching the trail-blazing Nisga'a closely.

The first ten years

The first 10 years of Nisga'a government was occupied with the establishment of laws governing elections, fisheries, and citizenship. But there was also an infrastructure deficit to tackle.

A decade ago, the only way to reach Gingolx was by boat or float plane. Ms. Clayton now travels the Nisga'a highway to the grocery store in Terrace, and back in a single day. "It brought tears to your eyes," she said, recalling the day in 2001 when the road opened.

On a warm evening this week, a loosely-organized squad of young men was shooting hoops in a dusty square in the heart of the village. There are no movie theatres or skateboard parks in this community of about 300 people, but that too is about to change - a $10-million sports centre on the waterfront is nearly completed.

A newly built legislature in the capital, New Aiyansh, dominates the skyline, a modern, airy design of stout wood poles and glass etched with aboriginal motifs. A grizzly bear occasionally saunters by to peer in at the government work force of about 120 people.

Elsewhere in the Nisga'a territory, there is a new sawmill, a new daycare, and a museum under construction. The cash for these initiatives comes from various sources, including annual fiscal transfers from Ottawa and Victoria, and interest from a trust fund born out of the $280-million cash settlement that formed part of the treaty.

But there is still significant unemployment - roughly 55 per cent. The signs of poverty are as obvious as the abandoned house next door to Ms. Clayton's tidy property - she dreams of seeing it razed and redeveloped.

"I didn't think we would create a utopia," said Joe Gosnell, the Nisga'a leader who signed the treaty for his people. But the way he sees it, the community is undoing the damage of more than a century of rule under the Department of Indian Affairs.

Mr. Gosnell has since bowed out of politics, but remains a senior statesman. In the Nisga'a legislature chambers, a small oval room that echoes both the aboriginal longhouse and the House of Commons, he looked around with pride. "Our people will not remain stagnant," he said, "and we will find our own way."

World economy takes its toll

The global economic turmoil has slowed the progress of Mr. Gosnell's nation: Capital for new projects is in short supply, and the decade has brought the near-collapse of the forestry and fishing industries.

Yet Mr. Gosnell believes the Nisga'a have already refuted the "prophets of doom" who had opposed the treaty. Critics predicted a bureaucratic nightmare in which Nisga'a law would clash with federal and provincial law, and that the province would be bankrupt if the provisions of the Nisga'a treaty were extended to all other first nations in B.C.

Tom Molloy was the chief negotiator for the federal government when the agreement was signed. "It was a huge challenge to get people to understand the treaty," he said, recalling the public fear and anger whipped up by opponents.

The new Nisga'a president is Mitchell Stevens, a bear of a man who will preside over the next major change in his community - the end of tax exemptions in 2013. He is enthusiastic about the road ahead, with mining companies and clean energy proponents knocking at his door.

The trust fund is outperforming the markets, he said, and his people can afford to be cautious and selective about development. An economic development map is marked with more than two dozen proposed business ventures, but the government is still developing a long-term plan that will determine which projects will get the green light.

But it is the land ownership changes, Mr. Stevens believes, that will generate the most dramatic changes in the coming years. "It will change the Nisga'a world," he said. "Without true land ownership, you can't have true self-government."

Freedom and unity

Many Nisga'a won't be there to witness that change - close to 3,500 of 6,000 citizens live outside of the Nass Valley, pursuing jobs and education in places like Vancouver and Terrace.

Randy Tait, a Nisga'a living in Vancouver, brought his grandson to the capital, New Aiyansh, for the anniversary this week. The pair enjoyed a treat from Mr. Tait's childhood - lava berries dipped in the grease of the eulachon fish and rolled in sugar - and listened to the "Treaty Babies" sing O Canada in the Nisga'a language. (The choir is comprised of children born since the treaty was signed.)

"For me, self-government is about freedom and unity," Mr. Tait said.

He may never directly benefit from the land ownership changes. But five-year-old Kraig, who is learning the Nisga'a language and dances from his grandfather, may one day see the opportunity to come home.

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