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Native elder and treaty negotiator Joseph Gosnell has told the Nisga’a Nation not to be afraid of change.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When the Nisga'a people gathered in the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia this week for a special assembly of their government, they began the event with a symbolic fire.

This wasn't the usual native smudging ceremony, in which smoke is wafted over participants in a cleansing ritual. It was far more prosaic than that. It was a good old-fashioned "mortgage burning" as the Nisga'a marked the final repayment of an $84-million debt they built up, borrowing from the federal government to finance the costs of 26 years of treaty negotiations.

"We've paid it all back. We are now completely free of that debt. Oh, it's an awesome feeling," Nisga'a president Mitchell Stevens said in an interview.

But even with that staggering debt eliminated, this is a time of growing concern for the Nisga'a who, on the 14th anniversary of their treaty enactment this weekend, are facing new and daunting financial challenges.

Every year since the first modern treaty in B.C. came into effect, on May 11, 2000, the Nisga'a have received payments ranging from $12-million to $20-million from Ottawa, with an additional $1-million to $2-million coming annually from Victoria. Now that flow of steady cash (which has totalled about $279-million) is ending and the Nisga'a Lisims Government, a law-making authority that was formed as part of the treaty, is under pressure to find new ways to maintain its revenue stream.

"Our final loan payment coincides with our final capital transfer, so we've reached a very significant milestone in the history of our people," acknowledged Mr. Stevens in an interview this week as his government met in the village of Gitwinksihlkw. "Now we must decide how we will continue our vision in the future."

The Nisga'a have long known this turning point was coming and have been working to build capacity since the day the treaty came into effect, establishing a government, building up a substantial trust fund, and investing in schools. Among the controversial steps they have taken is the introduction of a tax regime and the establishment of private property rights – changes that some First Nations say will encourage people to leave the Nass Valley.

"People criticize us about our individual land-holding project because when you are a land owner you pay tax. But those taxes help drive our economy, they help subsidize our schools, our medical, our social programs," Mr. Stevens said. "Uninformed armchair critics who worry about a mythical mass exodus of Nisga'a people, just because we have full ownership of our homes, should just mind their own business."

He said Nisga'a people accept paying taxes in the Nass Valley, a dramatic landscape of rugged mountains and rich salmon rivers north of Terrace, because they know the money goes toward schools and other services.

"That's the bottom line. We are paying for our own way, and our people understand that," said Mr. Stevens.

But the Nisga'a government will need more than resident taxation to keep operating at the level it has. And that's why TransCanada Corp. and Spectra Energy Corp. were invited to make presentations to the special assembly this week concerning potential pipeline routes from B.C's northeast gas fields to the coast.

"I see the energy sector as the strategic element to our sustainable prosperity and self-reliance," Mr. Stevens said.

He also wants to see permanent jobs, so that young people don't have to leave the Nass Valley.

"For the future I am very, very hopeful that the Nisga'a Nation [will be able to] get in their vehicles and take a 10-minute drive and go to a plant, a facility, rather than going to Fort Mac [in Alberta], or across Canada or further north to go to work," he said.

During the special assembly Joseph Gosnell, one of the key negotiators of the treaty, told the Nisga'a not to be afraid of change.

"You don't need fear in your life. You can do these things," he said referring to the challenges of managing major pipeline deals. "It's a time for our nation to be bold."

Mr. Gosnell, who received an honorary doctorate from Royal Roads University, said up to three liquefied natural gas lines could cross the Nass Valley and the Nisga'a have to grasp the opportunity.

But not everyone favours pipelines, even if it does mean jobs. Harry Azak, 24, divides his time between Terrace and the Nisga'a village of Gitwinksihlkw. A construction worker and commercial fisherman, he believes the future of the Nisga'a Nation is at stake.

"It's a pipeline. There's going to be jobs going all over the place. But what are they going to do when that's done? They're just going to desert the area and never come back," he said. "It's going to destroy the habitat for the salmon. … It's just going to destroy the value of the land."

Others outside the meeting expressed optimism for the future of the nation. Ali Blackwater, 31, was born in Prince Rupert and went to school in Vancouver, but moved to Aiyansh, just 11 kilometres east of Gitwinksihlkw in the Nass Valley, after meeting her husband during the Nisga'a New Year celebration in 2002. About half the 5,500 Nisga'a live outside the region, but native leaders hope a strong economy will encourage more to move back.

"Moving home sparked a fire inside me, wanting to know more and more about my culture," she says. A preschool teacher who has a three-year-old son, she would like to stay put. Her husband is hoping to open an automotive shop. She would like there to be a future in the Nass Valley for her son – and she says the education opportunities offered there will be crucial.

"My hope is that he'll go farther in his education and stick to his dreams and do whatever he wants to be in life."

What they got:

About $200-million in settlement payments, plus $11.8-million to increase participation in the general commercial fishery; $40-million for transition and $10-million towards a conservation trust.

Additional annual funding to help deliver health, education and social services.

2,000 square kilometres of land.


An average yearly allocation of about 71,000 salmon.

How they got there:

In 1887, Nisga'a chiefs travelled to Victoria to demand a treaty and the right to self-government.

In 1913, they sent a petition to the Privy Council in Britain.

In 1968, they went to B.C. Supreme Court to establish treaty rights.

In 1976, Canada began to negotiate.

In 1990, B.C. became party to the talks.

In 1996, all three parties reached an agreement-in-principle.

In 1998, a final agreement was signed.

On May 11, 2000, the treaty was enacted and the Nisga'a Lisims Government sat for the first time.