The backlash to an announcement of Gitxsan support for Enbridge's Northern Gateway has raised questions about the legitimacy of the pact between the native group and the company that wants to build the project.
And the backlash – voiced by community members who say the Friday announcement by hereditary chief Elmer Derrick has shamed and embarrassed the Gitxsan people – also underscores rifts among the Gitxsan, including a court battle over who has the right to represent the nation in treaty talks with the province.
"This deal that's been announced is not supported by all the Gitxsan and Elmer does not speak for all the Gitxsan," Marjorie McRae, an elected band chief counsellor who does not support the deal, said Sunday. "The treaty negotiators do not speak for all the Gitxsan – if they were, we wouldn't be in litigation right now."
Enbridge, however, says it's confident that the agreement has majority support among the Gitxsan, who lay claim to 33,000 square kilometres of territory in northwestern B.C. The proposed pipeline does not cross that territory, but would cross streams that drain into it.
"We have spent years consulting with the Gitxsan people and working to understand and respect their traditional government," Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said Sunday in an e-mail.
"Chief Derrick represents the consensus view of a majority of that leadership and is recognized as an authoritative voice of his people. As he said in interviews on Friday, this decision was reached by consensus, not everyone supports it but we are confident it is supported by a majority."
The uproar over the agreement relates in part to disagreement over who has the authority to speak for the Gitxsan. Mr. Derrick said he was speaking on behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, who are chosen on family and clan lines and who, along with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, pursued land claims all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark Delgamuukw case.
Ms. McRae is an elected band chief for the Gitanmaax band, one of several bands – along with several hereditary chiefs – that are suing the Gitsxan Treaty Society, for which Mr. Derrick is a negotiator, over treaty negotiations with the province. The suit also concerns a proposal for a new governance model and is expected to go to trial in January.
As part of its Northern Gateway project, Enbridge has agreed to set aside a 10-per-cent equity stake for eligible native communities in Alberta and B.C. and to provide financing to groups that want to take advantage of the offer.
To date, however, public response from native groups has been overwhelmingly negative, including a Vancouver gathering last week at which leaders trumpeted an "unbroken wall of opposition from the U.S. border to the Arctic Ocean."
Mr. Derrick announced his support the following day, bolstering Enbridge's contention that native opposition was far from unanimous.
Under the agreement, the Gitxsan could expect to receive at least $7-million in profits, which would go into a trust that would be used to provide scholarships and other youth-focused programs, Mr. Derrick said on conference call with reporters.
Mr. Derrick said he had not consulted band councils but that he, in his role as negotiator, had been talking to as many people as possible over the past six years, adding that the Gitxsan youth "can't eat rights and title" and are looking for economic opportunities in their own region.
"For too long we have watched our resources leave our territories without a say in where it goes or a share in the profits," Mr. Derrick said. "That must change."