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Elmer Derrick, chief negotiator of the Gitxsan Treaty Office, says ‘the status quo is not working and it has to change.’

JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

On a hot afternoon last July, a distressed teenager called the RCMP. They found him at the edge of a sheer cliff 80 meters above the Bulkley River, threatening to jump. They spent four hours trying to talk to him. Then he went over.

This month, Shawn Michael Webber's grandmother sang a lament to release his 18-year-old spirit in a ceremony of the Gitxsan people, a collective of 61 aboriginal groups, called houses, in northwestern B.C.

It helped drive away his mother's recurring nightmare where he is falling and calling for her. But his death has fuelled an already-fierce debate within the Gitxsan people about their collective future.

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Youth suicides are only the most visible part of that debate. Gitxsan leaders acknowledge their people are struggling with endemic sexual and physical abuse, rampant alcoholism, neglected children in overcrowded homes, and generations who don't know what it is like to earn a regular paycheque.

What Shawn needed, said Beverly Clifton Percival, one of the Gitxsan's hereditary chiefs, was hope for his future. It's a story that has been told on other Canadian native reserves, but here in this northern community, she is part of a team pushing for a groundbreaking treaty proposal. It is a plan shaped by the Gitxsan's traditional culture - but it's propelled by despair.

Chief Clifton Percival believes the Gitxsan people can achieve economic self-sufficiency and walk away from their dependence on the welfare of the Indian Act. "What you'll see will be thriving communities, sustainable and wealthy - not Donald Trump wealth, but wealth enough to be independent."

It is a plan that depends on the governments of Canada and British Columbia entering into an unprecedented agreement to give the Gitxsan's hereditary chiefs a measure of control over resources within the 33,000 square kilometres they claim as their traditional territories. In exchange, the Gitxsan would give up their reserves and their status under the Indian Act and become regular, taxpaying Canadians.

Today, Canada and B.C. are trying to assess whether they can make such a treaty with the Gitxsan. It contains some elements of the contentious 1969 White Paper that proposed to end the dependence of Indians by giving them equal status with other Canadians. That policy was abandoned in the face of fierce opposition from aboriginals. Now, 40 years later, some Gitxsan leaders are reshaping that notion in their own design.

The B.C. government in particular has expressed interest in the treaty proposal - Premier Gordon Campbell has pledged to make reconciliation with aboriginals a priority, but has been frustrated in his pursuit of a "new relationship."

But it has also exposed a rift within the Gitxsan leadership. The two sides are set to face off in court, battling over who can claim to speak for the Gitxsan people - and therefore who controls the land base.

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Marjorie McRae, chief councillor of the Gitanmaax Indian band, is leading the opposition to the new way of life proposed by the Gitxsan Treaty Office.

At an annual general meeting on her reserve Tuesday night, a buffet dinner was served before official business began. There was a family atmosphere as kids at play dashed around. But Chief McRae was furious over a report that Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl is ready to look at the proposal.

"People are scared," she said. "The safety net is being threatened here."

Chief McRae, along with 10 other chiefs and councillors, gathered around a boardroom table in Hazelton. In turn, they argued the Gitxsan Treaty Office does not have a mandate to negotiate for them, that the proposal is dangerous, and that the hereditary system is undemocratic.

"The Indian Act is a protection for our culture," said Billy Blackwater, a hereditary chief of the Basxha'laha house. "It's there for you when you need it."

Earlier in the day, another meal was laid out.

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Alice Jeffrey unpacked a small banquet in the woods close to the remote, and now abandoned, village of Gisgaga'a, where she was born in 1944. She cheerfully reported that the local bear population is still healthy - she saw a grizzly bear sow with four cubs near her cabin this spring.

Chief Jeffrey produced fragrant local blueberries, smoked sockeye salmon, fried bread and more. There was no snow on the ground, but still a bite in the air, as a small group huddled around a roaring fire while the matriarch directed the meal.

She is the hereditary chief of the Gisgaga'a, who are one of the 61 Gitxsan houses, each with its own claim to specific tracts of land. "It's a community that's vacant of people," she explained. The residents were persuaded to leave in 1946 by government agents who promised them housing on reserves. "I'm the third generation who wants to go home."

The log cabins have been reduced to shells. But a blue tarp covers what remains of a church. She hopes to restore it, the first step toward a revival of the settlement.

In the village of Gitwangak, 30 kilometres southwest of Hazelton, big families crowd into tiny homes. A line of weathered totem poles - they would be a museum curator's treasure - dominate the skyline.

Marcel Fowler moved here eight years ago when he inherited a home from his grandfather. He is Gitxsan by birth, but could shed no light on the provenance of the totem poles. He offers no opinion on the debate over the treaty proposal either. What do the Gitxsan want? Mr. Fowler said he just wants a job.

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At a Remembrance Day ceremony at Hazelton's cenotaph, about 300 people turned out to pay respect to the town's war dead. The poem In Flanders Fields was recited in both English and Gitxsan. Brigitta van Heek, a local school district official, moves easily through the group, chatting up veterans and young boys on bikes. She came to Hazelton in 1970 and has watched the collapse of the forest industry eat away at the community.

"A lot of the role models here have left to chase jobs," she says. It shows up in the classrooms as kids come to school hungry and apathetic.

Elmer Derrick, chief negotiator of the Gitxsan Treaty Office, said the welfare of the Indian Act has proved to be a trap. "People are on their hands and knees - that's what the Crown policies have done to our people," he said. "The status quo is not working and it has to change."

But he faces strong opposition from people in the community who fear change. "Everybody claws at my back because they believe we are giving away our medicine chest rights." That is, the entitlement to health care - and other benefits - that flow from the Indian Act. He believes that the Gitxsan would fare better as ordinary Canadians, and that their cultural traditions would be safeguarded.

Sadie Mowatt, Shawn Webber's 75-year-old grandmother and a hereditary chief, said the Gitxsan traditions remain strong but their family structure has eroded over her lifetime. She followed her mother's prescription for taking care of your own: "Make sure your windows are clean." There was no welfare back then - but there were trees and fish, enough to provide jobs and feed a family. Now she looks around and sees a community that is unrecognizable. "Too many kids having kids."

This week, Shawn's family returned to the bridge that spans the canyon where he fell to his death. They looked at the cliff face, and speculated on what might have made a difference.

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His mother clutched a photo of her young boy who loved basketball and wanted to join the Armed Forces, unable to explain how he came to the place where he lost all hope.

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