Yesterday, July 20th, was the 143rd anniversary of British Columbia’s confederation—i.e., when it ceased to be a colony of the United Kingdom and became a member of the then-four-year-old independent Dominion of Canada. But celebration by some Canadians in one vast territory in the northern interior of the province was muted. For it was also the ninth day of a countdown to August 4th under the terms of an indigenous “eviction notice” that challenges the legitimacy of settler rule in B.C. For it was on July 10th that the hereditary chiefs of two tribal villages of the Gitxsan nation, Gitwanga (a.k.a. Kitwanga) and Gitsegukla, gave notice to Canadian National Railway (C.N.) and individuals and institutions representing the sport fishing and timber industries. The notice, issued by the Gitxsan Treaty Society in Hazelton, B.C. (even though there is no Gitxsan treaty and many Gitxsan don’t want one; more on this below), states that it covers all of the approximately 33,000 square kilometers of northern B.C. territory belonging to the land-holding leaders of the several dozen extended matrilineal families (“houses”—similar to European noble houses) that make up the Gitxsan nation. It states, in part, “This eviction notice affects all sports fisheries on the Skeena River and tributaries, all forest activities … and C.N. Rail. All are expected to vacate and cease activities on Aug. 4, 2014, until both Crowns [i.e. the provincial and federal governments] have obtained the required consent of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs.”
The Gitxsan chiefs are using centuries of legal precedent. This includes not only the millennia of Gitxsan law strictly governing the use of family-owned territories—the Gitxsan ayookw—but also a series of Canadian legal decisions which recognize Gitxsan law. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, King George III (yes, the same chap who later got so grumpy about surrendering certain other North American territories) affirmed that no scrap of Indian land can come under the rule of the Crown without treaty—and yet in only a few remote corners of B.C. were any treaties ever signed. Then, Delgamuukw vs. the Queen, a massive lawsuit against the federal and provincial governments brought in the late 1980s by the Gitxsan (the spelling Gitksan was preferred in those days) and a neighboring nation which speaks an unrelated language but exercises an interlocking system of land tenure, the Wet’suwet’en, was struck down in an openly racist court ruling but then partly upheld in an appeal a few years later in a decision that recognized that aboriginal title did exist and that mostly oral traditions such as those of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en could constitute title. It left open what the nature of such title was, let alone its implications.
|Earl Muldoe (seated, at left), holder of the chiefly title Delgamuukw,|
a made famous in the annals of Canadian law
As Vernon Smith, who holds the Gitxsan hereditary title Sagum Higookw, pointed out, “In line with our ayookw, the Supreme Court of Canada says repelling trespassers is a necessary element of our title.” And, as Beverley Clifton Percival,* a negotiator who holds the hereditary title Gwaans from Gitsegukla’s House of Hanamuuxw, said, “There is no legislative authority for these government bureaucrats to make determinations regarding Gitxsan strength of title and rights. Without the consent by the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, they are trespassers.”
|Beverley Clifton Percival|
|Approximate territories of the coastal nations of British Columbia|
|Heiltsuk protesters greet a visiting government|
negotiating team in Bella Bella, B.C., in 2012.
|The Enbridge pipeline would run through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en, which has joined other|
Dene (Athabaskan) speaking nations in the anti-pipeline Yinka Dene Alliance.
Nathan Cullen, the New Democratic Party’s member of parliament (M.P.) for the area, has pleaded for calm. Meanwhile, the squatters have till August 4th to clear off. I have a feeling they won’t, and that the struggle for the land will enter a new chapter. Watch this space.
[You can read more about the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, etc., as well as sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]
Related: hear the author of this blog discuss the Cascadia independence movement in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in a recent interview for Seattle’s N.P.R. affiliate station KUOW-FM. Click here to listen.
* Full disclosure: Ms. Percival was a graduate student of mine some years ago at the University of Northern British Columbia’s Terrace campus, though I think I learned at least as much from her as she did from me.
** More full disclosure: I have worked very closely with the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas communities, and in particular with hereditary chiefs and treaty negotiators of the Kitsumkalum community. I myself take no personal position in any territorial dispute; my work there has not focused on territorial questions but on other governance issues such as membership policy.