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 Reece, said 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 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.
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.|
|The flag of Lax Kw’alaams, flying on Lelu Island|
|Mayor Garry Reece (left), with timber executive Wayne Drury|
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.