The hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan First Nation signed deal on Firday with that the energy company, Enbridge, that has been offered to 40 first nations in BC and Alberta who find themselves along or near the route for the proposed the Northern Gateway oil pipeline. This decision is news to some members of that First Nation though.
It should be noted that the Gitxsan’s territory is north of the actual route the proposed pipeline will take, but it does cross a number of tributaries that do flow through their traditional territory.
The announcement comes the day after a large group of BC First Nations signed a declaration in Vancouver stating their opposition to the pipeline and oil tanker traffic off of BC’s coast. Shortly after the declaration was signed, the company sent out a statement saying that ”aboriginal opposition to the project is by no means unanimous.” Now, it appears, they have proved it.
One day later, one of Gitxsan’s hereditary chiefs, Elmer Derrick – along with Enbridge executive — talking to local and national press about the deal that the hereditary chiefs accepted on behalf of their communities. Derrick maintains that the the previous day’s announcement had no bearing on their decision to publicly announce the deal.
“Over time we have established a relationship of trust with Enbridge, we have closely examined and assessed this project, and we believe it can be built and operated safely . . . For too long we’ve watched our own resources leave our territory without having a say in where it goes, or a share in the profits. That must change. ” said Derrick.
While all the details of the agreement have not been revealed, Enbridge has been offering First Nations a 10 per cent stake in the project. Assuming that all goes as the energy company plans and all 40 of the GiFirst Nation eventually sign on, then the Gitxsan would be entitled to less than half-a-percent of the pipeline’s profits. That might not sound like much, but they say that they are estimating that at least $7-million dollars worth of profits to be paid to the First Nation over several years.
That money will be put into a trust that is overseen by the hereditary chiefs and used for future investment. What exactly they want to spend that money on is a mystery for the moment, even to chief Derrick it would seem.
Derrick says that the Gitxsan needs to do something to improve its economic future in order to improve the lives of its people and to end the sense of hopelessness among its young people that causes them to move away, or worse, to commit suicide.
“ They cannot eat Gitxsan title and rights. That’s the problem. We need to find a way to change title and rights into economic opportunities that make sense for our communities and the people who live in them,” says Derrick.
The decision to accept the deal was not a community-wide one. The call was made by the hereditary chiefs who are not elected by their communities, and the ones that are elected, the band councils, were left out of the decision. There was no official public consultation done to gauge the opinions of Gitxsan members either.
Derrick says that he knows that a majority of the group’s members are in favour of the decision the chiefs made. When asked how he arrived at that conclusion he said:
“Just from talking to people.”
According to local MP and opponent of the gateway pipeline, Nathan Cullen, those from the Gitxsan Nation who aren’t happy with this decision have been talking to him. Some of whom, he says, had no idea that the chiefs were making this decision.
“I’ve been getting calls virtually all morning and emails from some very concerned members of the Gitxsan who are confused and upset about what’s happening,” says Cullen.
“It makes no sense. I’ve been in the Gitxsan territory a lot and met with many, many people at forums and individually about Enbridge, and the opposition to it has been as overwhelming there as it has been in any other community.”
Whether or not the decision has the support of the majority of Gitxsan members may not really matter, since the chiefs say they are exercising their rights and title as First Nations chiefs; power that has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.