Thursday, October 8, 2015

Tsimshian Protest Camp on Small Canadian Island Defies Massive Natural-Gas Project

Since late August, members of an indigenous First Nations community from the Tsimshian (also spelled Ts’msyen) Nation have been occupying—“re-occupying,” as they prefer to put it—an island off the coast of northern British Columbia where an energy multinational from Malaysia wants to build a liquid natural gas (L.N.G.) exporting terminal.  The community, Lax Kw’alaams, often referred to by its colonial name, Port Simpson, is the most populous Tsimshian village in Canada (there is also one over the border in Alaska) and is home to nine of the Tsimshian Nation’s fourteen constituent tribes.  Lax Kw’alaams members overwhelmingly voted down the developments plans in a referendum in May of this year, and the community’s mayor, Garry Reecesaid late last month that the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation would file suit for aboriginal title to the island, Lelu Island, and to nearby Flora Bank.

Tsimshian territory makes up about the northern third of B.C.’s coast.  Since, with very few exceptions, almost no land in this vast province has been ceded by Indian treaty, technically all of Tsimshian territory, and nearly all of B.C., is in one sense not part of B.C. or Canada but is unceded aboriginal territory.  An “aboriginal title” claim by Lax Kw’alaams would take these territories out of their current legal limbo (which the federal and provincial governments treat as de facto Crown sovereignty) and put them squarely before the courts, where a number of recent decisions (the Gitxsan in 1997, the Tsihlq’otin in 2014) have greatly strengthened the aboriginal hand.

Artist’s rendering of the L.N.G.-terminal project proposed for Lelu Island
The struggle over L.N.G. pipelines through the territories of B.C. nations has become a flashpoint in the indigenous North American land struggle, including the recent aboriginal push against environmentally destructive energy projects which operates under the banner “Idle No More.”  (See articles from this blog about the Gitxsan land struggle here, here, and here and about that of B.C.’s Wet’suwet’en here.)

The Lelu project planners, Petronas (a Malaysian corporation known worldwide for its record-breaking Petronas Towers skyscraper complex), and its Canadian arm, Pacific NorthWest L.N.G., have said that construction of the terminal would cost nearly $1.5 billion.  This includes constructing a bridge and a harbor in addition to the processing plant.  But Lax Kw’alaams, with studies in hand, points out this will harm salmon habitat in the nearby Skeena River estuary, a serious issue for a community very dependent on the traditional seasonal round of resource-gathering, primarily salmon.  Among the other six Tsimshian communities in Canada, Metlakatla (Maxłakxaała) and Kitselas (Gits’ilaasü) bands signed off on the project (Metlakatla is home to members of several of Lax Kw’alaams’s nine tribes, but the tribes’ paramount chiefs are of Lax Kw’alaams), but Kitsumkalum (Gitsmgeelm), Kitkatla (Gitkxaała), Klemtu (the Gidestsu people at Kłmduu), and Hartley Bay (Gitga’ata), as of late September, had yet to do so.  B.C.’s premier, Christie Clark, is a supporter of the Petronas plan.

Sm’oogit Yahan, a.k.a. Donald Wesley, Jr., who has been speaking for the protestors, said in September that his group will be co-founding a brand-new organization called the Northern First Nation Alliance, along with some of the more uncompromisingly sovereigntist nations in the province, including the Gitxsan, the Wet’suwet’en, and the Council of Haida Nations.  (The Nisga’a, just to the north, are not part of the club: their chiefs surrendered their territory to the Crown in the 1990s for a cash settlement and for self-government rights that they already possessed.)  As Yahan explained, “Our Traditional ways of life and the resources which have sustained our people are not to be pawns in the Christie Clark government’s L.N.G. dreams.  Development within our Traditional territories must have our free, prior and informed consent.  The people of Lax Kw’alaams spoke very clearly in their rejection of the 1.25-billion-dollar offer from Petronas, and this camp builds upon that rejection.  This issue is not just a First Nations issue but one that will affect all British Columbians, especially those who rely upon healthy and abundant fish stocks.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Reece—whose village government office is separate from the Lelu protest group but for a while was quoted in the media as implicitly supporting it—said last month, “We want to protect crucial salmon habitat, protect our food security, and ensure that governments and industry are obligated to seek our consent.  If we obtain title, we will own Lelu Island and Flora Bank.”  He added, “Our traditional law, backed by our scientific reports, has made it clear that Flora Bank cannot be touched by [Pacific NorthWest] or any other company that proposes development.”

Gitxsan chiefs visited Lelu Island to show solidarity.
But things got complicated in late September, when Petronas workers conducting unauthorized surveying on Lelu were escorted away by members of the Lax U’u’la Warriors—an intertribal, interethnic support group linked to the Lelu protest camp.  (Lax U’u’la, also spelled Lax Üüla, or “place of the harbor seals”) is the Sm’algyax (Tsimshian language) name for the island.)

The flag of Lax Kw’alaams, flying on Lelu Island
In response, in early October, a statement issued on behalf of “the Hereditary Chiefs of the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams” granted Petronas surveyers “conditional access to Lelu Island and the Flora Banks to complete their studies, the results of which will allow us to determine our final stance.”  The statement said that Yahan and the island’s occupiers did not have “authority to speak or act, no authority to unilaterally decide to use and occupy any lands and no authority to use the identity of the Nine Tribes.  All of this contravenes Ts’msyen Law.  ...  We are actively addressing the shame certain individuals, bound by our laws, have brought by these actions.”  Regarding the expulsion of the Petronas workers, the hereditary chiefs’ statement added, “To commit violence, demean and disgrace the station of Ts’msyen Chieftainship through words and action is abhorrent to the true Chiefs of the Ts’msyen Nation and such disrespect threatens the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams,” whose “duties and responsibilities” and “names handed down since time immemorial, are thus activated, and we remind all our people that they have the right to live and work in safety under the protection of the Laws of the Ts’msyen.”

Lax Kw’alaams
In the traditional social and political structure of the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Wet’suwet’en, Haisla, Haida, Tlingit, and other nations in the area, it is the hundreds of matrilineal extended families (houses) which hold sovereignty over their separate territories.  In Lax Kw’alaams, however, houses pool some of their authority in the paramount hereditary chieftainships of the community’s nine tribes.  (For more detail on Tsimshian social structure, see my book Becoming Tsimshian: The Social Life of Names.)

Mayor Garry Reece (left), with timber executive Wayne Drury
Yahan, identified as chief of the Gitwilgyoots (one of the Nine Tribes), reacted swiftly to the joint statement from the hereditary chiefs by stating that only he had the authority to grant access to the island.  “I stand on that island because it is on our traditional territory.  I am the sole chief in standing in this tribe that has a say in what goes on.  ...  We are all individual tribes and we don’t go over other tribes’ territory.”  Mayor Reece, who uses the chiefs’ name Txagaaxs and is identified as chief of the Ginaxangiik, appeared to agree with Yahan that no one had “authority to represent or sign anything on the tribe’s behalf.”  He added that no person or group currently speaks on behalf of all nine tribes.

The Tsimshian, at least, certainly are idle no more.  Which approach to land stewardship will prevail in the Lax Kw’alaams community, and whether protectors of the land will win this battle in the war over energy projects and the environment, remains to be seen.

[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 with and for various Tsimshian organizations, including the Allied Tsimshian Tribes Association, the Tsimshian Tribal Council, the Kitsumkalum Band Office, and, in particular and most extensively, the Kitsumkalum First Nation Treaty Office, as well as many individuals and families.  My opinions and perspectives are my own, not necessarily shared by anyone else, and I do not speak on behalf of any Tsimshian individual or organization.

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