Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tense Standoff Eases as Gitxsan Nation Suspends Evictions from British Columbia Land; All Hinges on Aug. 25th Talks

Gitxsan activists during an “Idle No More” protest action in January 2013
The heated land dispute between the Gitxsan indigenous nation and the federal and provincial governments in north-central British Columbia, Canada, seems to have been resolved peacefully, at least for now, weeks after Gitxsan hereditary chiefs set a deadline for “evicting” those carrying out non-indigenous economic activities on their vast, 33,000-square-kilometer territorial claim.  Canadian media reported August 9th that the Gitxsan treaty office said the nation was suspending eviction notices to Canadian National Railway (C.N.) and timber and sport-fishing outfits after the Crown agreed to allow amendments to an agreement which Gitxsan claim signed some territories away to downriver villages of the Tsimshian nation.

Gitxsan activists during a C.N. railroad blockade protest last year
But the suspensions hold only until August 25th, the date of planned meetings between the Crown, the Gitxsan, and leaders from the two Tsimshian villages in question, Kitsumkalum and Kitselas.  The easing of the Gitxsan position came just days after the nation’s chief negotiator, Gwaans, whose English name is Beverley Clifton Percival, had told national news media, “The eviction is going forward.  [But] we’re being reasonable.  We’re giving all parties time to act.  We’re trying to work with all parties.”

The Gitxsan territorial claim
(some boundaries disputed by neighboring nations)
As reported earlier in this blog, the Gitxsan set the August 4th deadline last month after aboriginal title to territory was strengthened in official eyes by a dramatic court ruling in favor of the Tsihlqot’in (Chilcotin) nation in south-central B.C.  The deadline passed (reported earlier this month in this blog) amid a tense few days in the remote forest region, with C.N. temporarily suspending rail traffic and, according to news reports, First Nations people ejecting anglers from Gitxsan lands.

Nearly all land in B.C. was absorbed into Canada without any Indian treaties, and the Tsihlqot’in decision is only the latest in a series of court findings, starting with the Gitxsan’s own land claim in the early 1990s, which is determining that indigenous people have unextinguished rights in the land.  The extent of these rights is still being explored, but the Tsihlqot’in ruling requires aboriginal permission, not just consultation, for economic activities on the land.  In B.C., there is already a lot of political momentum in aboriginal communities, generated by a wave of protests over the past couple years as part of the nationwide “Idle No More” uprising against oil pipelines and other projects.

An aboriginal protester during an “Idle No More” day of action in Manitoba last year
Tenimgyet, a Gitxsan hereditary chief whose English name is Art Mathews, said of the suspension, “It is a very positive move by the Crown to undertake to work diligently with Kitselas and Kitsumkalum to ensure that all parties in the situation are dealt with honourably.  The government being honourable is not a one-size fits all.”

Joe Bevan, chief councillor of the Kitselas (Gits’ilaasü) First Nation, a Tsimshan community whose territory borders Tenimgyet’s tribal village, said that he was open to discussions but was certainly not ready to give ground.  “We’re true to our lands,” Bevan said, “we know where our territory is, our traditional land, and we’ve been using it for thousands of years.  Our door is open for the Gitxsan to come in and have an open and frank discussion.  It’s quite unfortunate that the Gitxsan have taken the role that they have and this type of route, that’s not the way we operate but that’s what they’ve chosen to do.”

Kitselas’s chief councillor Joe Bevan, second from right, flanked by Chinese trade delegates
and the mayor of Terrace, a town which sits on unceded Tsimshian territory
Clifton Percival, the Gitxsan negotiator, meanwhile emphasized that her nation’s dispute is with the government, not with the Tsimshian.

Beverley Clifton Percival
[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.]

[Full disclosure: I have worked extensively with, and published about, Tsimshian communities, especially Kitsumkalum, and have conducted research which defends that community’s interests.  Also, Beverley Clifton Percival was once a graduate student of mine.  But none of my research focused on territorial disputes, and I take no position on the disagreements between Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, and the Gitxsan.]

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