“Coast Tsimshian lands not for sale”, read one of the signs along the Skeena Highway on Friday afternoon.
Members of Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla, who represent the Nine Tribes of the Coast Tsimshian, temporarily blocked traffic to share their message — “The province’s action will prevent economic development for all.”
The B.C. government has been in discussions with the Nisga’a Nation to sell Crown land at Nasoga Gulf, land that both the Coast Tsimshian and the Nisga’a Nation say has been part of their territory since time immemorial.
The proposed transaction began in late 2014. The Nisga’a announced their intention to purchase the land publicly in 2016 in the hopes of developing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. A public dispute over the land surfaced this week with the Coast Tsimshian media campaign and blockade calling on the government to find a solution with them, and avoid conflict.
Lax Kw’alaams Mayor John Helin, Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton, traditional hereditary chiefs and Coast Tsimshian members stood in solidarity over the issue at the blockade along one lane of Highway 16 on June 7.
“It was a sharing of why we’re here, and what we’re doing, and that we gave no consent, nor do we plan to in the future, and that we are working together, Metlakatla and Lax Kw’alaams as the Coast Tsimshian, and we want to bring the government together with us for a meeting to find solutions that will meet everybody’s needs,” said Joycelynn Mitchell, spokesperson for Metlakatla.
For two hours, Mitchell and others walked up to cars, handing out a letter from Leighton and Helin titled “Provincial government betrays all First Nations and its’ own principles by trying to unilaterally sell Nine Tribes Land to the Nisga’a Nation. But we have a solution that would benefit everyone.”
Members waved flags, sang songs and danced, as trucks and cars slowly drove by, some honking their horns in support. BC Highways and Terrace RCMP were also on scene.
Metlakatla member, Wayne Haldane, was heading to Terrace for a job interview when he saw the blockade.
“It’s our territory right? I didn’t think the government could take that away from us,” Haldane said.
Stan Dennis, the spokesperson for Lax Kw’alaams said they chose this location because it’s on the joint reserve between the two communities of Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla.
“We just want to raise awareness and point out the fact that this highway that’s on a reserve and the railway, it’s passing through our reserve and we didn’t give consent for a highway or a railway to go through but it’s here. So you know, it’s a perfect place to raise awareness in regards to trespasses or raise awareness, in particular, to the territory of the Nine Tribes of the Coast Tsimshian,” Dennis said.
Hours after the blockade began, the Nisga’a Lisims Government sent out a press release stating that the recent opposition is “politically motivated.”
The Nisga’a Nation said the lands they intend to purchase is part of their territory where they claim to have constitutionally protected rights and co-management responsibilities under the Nisga’a Treaty.
The treaty with the provincial and federal government came into effect in May 2000. The agreement recognizes the Nisga’a Lisims Government as its own democratic, decision-making government within their territory.
“Over the last three years, Nisga’a Lisims Government has made repeated attempts to meet with our neighbours, Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla, and discuss this land purchase, but our efforts were rebuffed,” said Eva Clayton, president of Nisga’a Lisims Government, in the press release.
“Essentially, we are purchasing our own land at fair market value — lands that are already included in our Treaty areas—so that we can pursue economic development to benefit the Nisga’a Nation and all British Columbians.”
A meeting was proposed with the Coast Tsimshian for June 11, according to the Nisga’a Nation, to discuss the land transaction, but the blockade took place before the meeting and Clayton said she doesn’t know why they waited until now to take this position.
In response to the dispute, one of the seven Tsimshian band leaders, Kitselas sit-in-Chief Councillor Judy Gerow, said government officials need to do their homework and approach all seven Tsimshian bands for approval, and not just cherry pick one or two. Gerow just wrapped up a five-day Elder Knowledge Sharing event with band members from across Canada.
Gerow said that Tsimshian bands need to come together to discuss territorial disputes.
“There never used to be [territorial disputes]. There’s a map that was circulated here that showed from the very beginning of treaty negotiations in the 1970s, 1980s that Tsimshian Nation together formed our statement of intent, which is our territory. The whole Tsimshian Nation formed the territory, which included seven Tsimshian bands. That’s what we use today during negotiations,” Gerow said.
“I’ve heard it being said that things have started breaking up, there’s been issues between different Tsimshian communities, and it’s because of industry.”
The Coast Tsimshian have said they recognize the need to develop LNG opportunities in a responsible way but if the Nasoga Gulf Lands are sold to the Nisga’a “everyone will lose.”
In the letter handed out at the blockade it states: “LNG proponents will not invest in this area if there is a conflict on these lands and we have already heard these concerns from industry. We ask ourselves, why would the province of B.C. see fit to risk LNG development in this area and confine citizens of both the Nisga’a Nation and the Nine Tribes to continued poverty?”
In one of the shared solutions offered the Coast Tsimshian say they are willing to share the benefits of LNG development with the Nisga’a Nation.
With files from Brittany Gervais and Quinn Bender
Shannon Lough | Editor
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