Prince Rupert mayor, Lax Kw’alaams and Kitkatla chiefs comment on Watson Island case

Lax Kw’alaams was recently named a defendant in the court case involving Kitkatla and the City of Prince Rupert, in which the Gitxaala says the City is required to consult with them before the Watson Island can be sold, and Lax Kw’alaams Chief Garry Reece said being included in the case is critical for his community and the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation.

Lax Kw’alaams was recently named a defendant in the court case involving Kitkatla and the City of Prince Rupert, in which the Gitxaala says the City is required to consult with them before the Watson Island can be sold, and Lax Kw’alaams Chief Garry Reece said being included in the case is critical for his community and the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation.

“The claim by Kitkatla that they have Aboriginal rights and title within the Prince Rupert Harbour area is a recent claim. Before approximately 2004, the Kitkatla traditional territory boundary was well south of Prince Rupert, and it is just recently that Kitkatla has expanded their boundary northward encroaching onto a large part of the traditional territory of the Coast Tsimshian,” said Chief Reece.

“We will do everything in our power to protect our aboriginal rights and title interests and our commercial interests.”

Kitkatla Chief Elmer Moody, however, says he was taken aback by Lax Kw’alaams desire to be included in the proceedings.

“It is a bit unusual and a bit surprising that Lax Kw’alaams is seeking to intervene considering the question is about Aboriginal rights and title…The position the Gitxaala has taken is no different than one expressed by Lax Kw’alaams in 2009 saying they expected to be consulted on the sale of Watson Island,” he said.

The release in question, dated September 18, 2009 comes from the Coast Tsimshian. In it, then-Lax Kw’alaams chief John Helin stated that, “If potential purchasers of the Watson Island site have not properly consulted with the Coast Tsimshian (as required under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982), prior to their attempted purchase of the site, we will oppose the purchase with the full force of law to protect the environment and further potential harmful impact on our Aboriginal rights”.

“This has the potential to set a dangerous precedent in that it gives governments and businesses a way to get around consulting Aboriginal groups when it comes to their rights and title in an area,” said Chief Moody, noting that Kitkatla has had meetings with the Coast Tsimshian in the past and sought more meetings related to the Prince Rupert harbour and Aboriginal title.

“We have taken the position that an agreement with any First Nation does not permit the infringement on the Aboriginal title of the Gitxaala.”

For his part, Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem says he believes Lax Kw’alaams inclusion will strengthen the case.

“Essentially we’ve got one group saying they have rights to the land and another saying they don’t and can prove that in court. Unfortunately the City is caught in the middle and the City is worried about the cost,” he said, adding that it could equate to one million dollars if the case makes its way up through the different levels of the court system.

“There is no law or requirement for local government to consult on the sale of deeded land, which is what this is…If you look at the case, Kitkatla is really treading new territory with the question of if municipalities should be required to consult on the sale of land.”

And, Mussallem says, he is confident the issue could have been resolved if Chief Elmer Moody of the Gitxaala Nation had consulted with the Federal and Provincial Governments instead of going after the municipality.

But Moody says that the Gitxaala have tried to keep this out of court and had discussions with the City about consultation prior to filing the court documents.

“We have always left the offer [to consult on a resolution] open, but at the end of the day if there is no response you have to pursue another course of action…At this stage our only recourse, specifically with Watson Island, is a legal recourse,” he said, noting that he sees much of the commenting in the media as “political posturing” and that the two communities would be better served to sit down and discuss it then communicate through the media.

“Our intent is not to block development, our intent is to be part of the development in the region…We want the region not to be caught up in continual conflict.”

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