The northernmost stretch of the Yellowhead Highway, between Smithers and Terrace, BC, passes through the territory of the Gitsxan nation. I spent an important part of my childhood there growing up in one of the Hazeltons, three small towns (New Hazelton, Old Hazelton and South Hazelton) that straddle the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. It’s where I started school, made my first friends and had my first kiss from a girl who wasn’t related to me.
Growing up in the shadow of Mount Rocher DeBoule in the late ’60s and early ’70s was to be more or less cut off from the outside world. But it was one of the best places in this country for a young boy to learn about the cultures that preceded those of most of my ancestors. As my father owned a bulk-fuel plant, I would ride shotgun with him as he delivered gas and oil to the different communities of the Gitsxan: exotic-sounding places like Kispiox, Kitwanga, Gitsegukla and the more prosaically named Moricetown. At the time, these villages still sported rows of ancient totem poles that predated the settlement of European cultures in the region.
One of my earliest and most vivid memories dates from 1970, when, as a five-year-old boy, my family made a visit to a totem pole-raising ceremony at ‘Ksan, the historical village that the Gitsxan had recently built. The drums, the fires, the chanting and the dancing, and the red-and-black art that covered the traditional houses of the historical village made a deep imprint on my young psyche. Gitsxan culture was flourishing despite it being the early years of Native militancy and development, and at a time when residential schools and their horrors were still running strong.
The memory came back last week when I read about the Gitsxan people’s proposal to become “enfranchised,” in other words, to leave the Indian Act in return for a land base and full control over the resources on their traditional territory. They would be taxed like any other people, surrender rights to housing and other financial supports. In return, they’d control their own financial affairs, and be completely accountable for whatever risks undertaken.
The Gitxsan Alternative Governance model is a risky and audacious proposal that has reportedly confused negotiators in both the federal and provincial governments. But the Gitsxan have long been trailblazers in the quest for a workable arrangement with the governments of Canada and British Columbia. Their lands are rich in water, minerals, fish and forests, but, typically, their people are poor because they long ago lost control over their own resources. This began to change with the Supreme Court’s Delgamuukw decision that ruled on a land-claims case the Gitsxan and neighbouring Wet’suwet’en peoples filed in 1984.
Delgamuukw acknowledged Aboriginal ownership of the land and the right to use it for other purposes than simply traditional pursuits. The decision differed from recognizing common land ownership, however, by saying that it is a Constitutional communal right deeply linked to Indigenous culture.
The Gitsxan evidently feel confident enough to continue blazing their own path. As chief negotiator Elmer Derrick wrote in explaining the governance model, “The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that the Gitxsan has to reconcile Crown title with their pre-existence. This means that we have the freedom to be ourselves within Canada and British Columbia. We do not have to be ‘Indians’ nor exist under any other label.”
This is what they mean by “being Gitsxan,” which translates as the “People of the river of mist.” They want to define themselves, and not have their status determined for them.
“We continue to teach our grandchildren about being Gitxsan,” Derrick wrote. “As free Gitxsan we will not be a burden on the Crown. We do not want the Crown to be a burden on us.”???
Whether the federal or provincial governments will respond to this proposal is part of the drama. Certainly, it would appeal to some Conservative thinkers who would rather deal with First Nations as mere municipalities and end what they see as entitlements. On the other hand, handing control over huge tracts of land and resources to the hereditary chief structure that is favoured by the Gitsxan could be too much for the feds or the province to handle.
Nor is it necessarily a model that would appeal to other First Nations in Canada, many of which lack cohesive land base or whose territories are poor in resources. But each First Nation should be free to negotiate relationship agreements that suit them best provided they have the support of their people. The Gitsxan model shows that they can use their history while not remaining prisoners of the past.
In researching this column, I discovered that the totem-pole-raising ceremony that I attended at ‘Ksan almost 40 years ago was more prescient than a five-year-old would understand. According to the Gitsxan website, it was raised to commemorate the opening of the village on August 12, 1970. “Standing at attention at the top of the pole is a white man, a B.C. government representative, complete with top hat and bow tie,” reads the website (www.gitxsan.com). “Beneath the man is Eagle and below is a crouched Wolf, representing the Wolf Clan. At the base is a crest of the dominant Fireweed Clan: Mosquito transforming into a human, wings becoming arms and human legs in development.”
The Gitsxan continue to be a people in development and transformation. The man in the top hat should be, as well.