Treaty issues to be addressed by members of Gitxsan society

By Malcolm McColl

Delgamuukw (Earl Muldoe) is from Gitxsan territory where the town of Hazelton, B.C. lays a’centre. Many people of Gitxsan heredity are now examining treaty options as Autumn 2008 approaches.

Earlier this year, the Gitxsan Treaty Society (GTS) released the document “Alternative Governance Model” which has caused debate to ensue at Gitxsan meetings at Gitanmaax Hall and in the communities. Treaty issues are very important to the thousands of Gitxsan.

Gitxsan hereditary governance systems (and oral traditions) are the legal core that re-established Aboriginal Rights and Title in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997. The Ayookw (Indian Law) was revived.

“Delgamuukw, also known as Earl Muldoe, suing on his own behalf and on behalf of all the members of the Houses of Delgamuukw and Haaxw (and others suing on their own behalf and on behalf of thirty-eight Gitksan Houses and twelve Wet’suwet’en Houses.” (Source: Judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada)

Delgamuukw won, and the judgment called for “accommodation” of Aboriginal Rights and Title. This recognition of hereditary and other clan rights changes the political interest of the 33,000 sq. km. of Gitxsan (other interpretations put the area as large as 57,000 sq. km.).

The GTS said, “The Gitxsan wish to step back from what has gone before, setting aside for the moment and opening a new and more productive initiative,” in their Alternative Governance Model document.

“Governments have long said that settlements must respect local conditions and traditions. We agree, and in that spirit propose a specific Gitxsan approach to our future relationship with the governments of Canada and B.C.”

“Our discussions so far have been based on the standard B.C. Treaty model which involves treaty settlement land and a new form of Indian government which would replace Indian Act Bands and Councils.”

The society said, “We understand a government preference for a model . . . into which you have invested a great deal of legal effort and political capital. We do not criticize this. We say only that for us, there is a better way, and we ask you to join with us in exploring that road.”

The society clarified, “We have no wish to receive any coercive power over our members, or to engage in any separate level of taxation.” They claim “only the right of all Canadians to benefit from the services paid for by taxes paid by us and others.”

In fact, “The sole purpose of Gitxsan governance is internal for the management of collective Gitxsan assets and the preservation of traditions . . . The current governance system (Ayookw) demonstrably does this adequately now, and has since time immemorial.”

The society added this resonant statement: “Any agreement must of course end the application of the Indian Act, including the Band governance structure imposed under the law. The Gitxsan are yet to accept Band councils and reserves.”

Continuing, “The laws and services currently applied by the Indian Act councils can be better and more efficiently provided by federal and provincial entities as for all other British Columbians. We will naturally expect a voice in the mode of delivery to the Gitxsan, but we accept the management and infrastructure in place.”

From the society’s point of view, “The Gitxsan are not interested in the concept of ‘treaty settlement lands.’ Rather we wish to remain in a relationship with the entire 33,000 sq. km. of traditional territory.”

“The economic value of our collective interest (which is neither fee simple nor sovereign but is certainly real, court ordered, and subject to definition) is to be realized by the process of ‘accommodation’ as articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada.”

While the GTS looks forward to discussing “details of accommodation,” the society’s current process contains an optimistic tone. They say, “We take encouragement from the fact that we have working models in place known to all parties at the table, which are the result of just such accommodation.”

Gitxsan have taken jurisdiction over forests, the Carbon Credits Plan (biomass), and watersheds “which encompass the whole of our traditional territory.”

Ratification of agreements “may impose some complexities,” including differences held by eight local bands, including non-Gitxsan members of some of the bands, and some reserve residents who are not Indian.

“Since ratification of a settlement should be done by Gitxsan alone . . . some provision will be required for the non-Gitxsan,” the society said. “We suggest that this is appropriate responsibility for Canada as the architect of the current Band structure.

“We came to the table as committed Canadians, paying our taxes and contributing to the country. We seek no special status nor any parallel society. We wish to live as ordinary Canadians in our way in a multicultural society. Further, we wish to pay our own way.”

The GTS stated, “Our claim, and our only distinct claim, is to the inherited collective rights of our ancestors including those confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw.”

The society observed, “All Canadians have the right to inherit property. So do we. Our inheritance is an interest in the lands making up our traditional territory.”

It is those “interest” accommodations the GTS wishes to negotiate. “The Gitxsan governance system has evolved over many centuries. Our civilized approach to taking care of our community has not simply come out of a piece of legislation.”

The Ayookw that guide the Gitxsan people has “a solid foundation of fairness, honour, respect, truth, openness, inclusiveness, accountability, and responsibility.”

“The underlying principle of democracy as espoused by JS Mill, Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, and others from across the pond, is the same as what Delgamuukw, Guxsan, Sakumhiigookw, Dinimget, Gitludaalth, and many other Gitxsan thinkers defend.”

Meetings in Gitxsan will continue through the fall and winter.