On Friday, Dec. 2, Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick and Enbridge Executive Vice-President Janet Holder publicly signed an equity agreement. The $7-million deal allegedly cemented Gitxsan support for Enbridge’s controversial proposed $5.5-billion tar sands pipeline project. However, within hours dissent was visible in the community and by Monday night a new community consensus against the project was emerging.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, as it is known, would involve the construction of two 1,170 kilometre pipelines from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia. Enbridge, and the Canadian and Albertan governments, have argued that project is a national strategic asset which would ensure that Canadian tar sands exports can access energy-hungry Asian markets.

Critics have vehemently opposed the project as an unwarranted and unjustifiable risk to local ecosystems. Aboriginal peoples and environmentalists have suggested that an accident is not a possibility but an inevitability. A report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pembina Institute, and Living Oceans Society suggested that the pipeline and associated coastal tanker traffic would compromise salmon habitat, rich coastal waters, as well as First Nations traditional livelihoods and economic well-being. Katie Terhune of the Living Oceans Society clearly stated their concern: “It is not a question of if, but when, a spill will happen.”

First Nations, whose unceded territory encompasses the vast majority of British Columbia, have strongly asserted that the government does not have the jurisdiction to approve this pipeline without their consent. A united front among Aboriginal communities has developed against the movement of tar sands oil through their territories. On Dec. 1, in a Vancouver ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the Save the Fraser Declaration, several additional First Nations signed on expanding public opposition to more than 130 Aboriginal communities.

When Elmer Derrick signed the equity agreement with Enbridge the following day, a break appeared to be forming in the wall of First Nations opposition. A negotiator for the Gitxsan Treaty Society, Derrick said he acted on the authority of the chiefs, speaking for a majority of them. In a video released by Enbridge, vice-president Holder suggested that “the public needs to understand there isn’t as much opposition as they may believe.” She continued, “truly we do have First Nations support all through British Columbia and Alberta.”

In a news release “on behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs,” Derrick claimed, “we have established a relationship of trust with Enbridge, we have examined and assessed this project, and we believe it can be built and operated safely.” Explaining Gitxsan Treaty Society’s decision, Derrick said, “the young people were telling us that there’s no hope for them…. They cannot eat Gitxsan’s title and rights. And that’s the problem.” He suggested signing the deal with Enbridge offered “a way to change title and rights into economic opportunities.”

However, while people cannot eat abstract legal formulations like Aboriginal title and rights, they can and do eat salmon. In fact, salmon has long been the mainstay of the Gitxsan people. The salmon fishery remains a yearly ritual, as it has for generations. Children learn their stories and traditions working alongside their grandmothers in the smokehouse. Salmon is the heart of the people.

Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that the decision to accept the Enbridge offer was not a community-wide one. There was no official public consultation and the band councils were left out of the discussion.

When the Gitxsan band councils learned of the agreement through the media, they voiced their disagreement. This was not the first instance of tension between the band councils and the Gitxsan Treaty Society. In fact, four of the bands and a number of disaffected hereditary chiefs are suing the Gitxsan Treaty Society, arguing that they should not represent the community in treaty negotiations. Responding to the Enbridge agreement, the plaintiffs issued a release stating that the Gitxsan Treaty Society “does not have the authority to enter into such Agreements without consulting or being authorized by the Gitxsan people.”

But it was not only the bands, with their well-established grievances with the Gitxsan Treaty Society, that opposed the deal. On Sunday and Monday, Gitxsan members held emergency clan meetings to determine their response to the agreement between the Gitxsan Treaty Society and Enbridge. Three clans eventually agreed to a joint press release; speaking for the Gitxsan people, hereditary chief Earl Muldoe (Delgamuukw) declared, “No to the Enbridge pipeline.”

The Enbridge deal was not sanctioned by the hereditary governance of the Gitxsan people. In their press release the Gitxsan hereditary chiefs stated, “We have traditional protocols in place that dictate the actions of the Gitxsan people when making important decisions that will impact the whole Gitxsan Nation and/or neighbouring Nations. These protocols were not followed by the Gitxsan Treaty Society negotiators.”

The hereditary chiefs put the government and Enbridge on notice that the Gitxsan Treaty Society negotiators and Executive Directors no longer represent the Gitxsan clans. Effectively in the eyes of the chiefs they have been fired. The community has closed the Gitxsan Treaty Society office, boarding up the office.

Many in the Gitxsan community feel their people have been embarrassed and shamed by the activities of a few members of their community. However, the strength of the response demonstrates the continued solidarity of the majority of the Gitxsan people with all the other First Nations that continue to stand against Enbridge.

Watch “A New Beginning” a new video by Ardea Films on the Gitxsan community’s response to the equity agreement.

The video features Larry Patsey of the Giskaast (Fireweed) Clan, Bridie O’Brien of the Lax Gibuu (Wolf) Clan and Myrtle Muldoe of the Lax Seel/Ganeda (Frog) Clan.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.