The Gitxsan: Betrayal of a Nation

The Gitxsan: Betrayal of a Nation
by Arthur Topham
January 27, 2004


“We know that justice and generosity can flourish only in an atmosphere of trust. For if individuals and minorities do not feel protected against the possibility of the tyranny of the majority, if French-speaking Canadians or native peoples or new Canadians do not feel they will be treated with justice, it is useless to ask them to open their hearts and minds to their fellow Canadians.”

– Pierre Trudeau, April 17, 1982

The irony contained in the Globe & Mail’s January 27, 04 front page story “Throne Speech has native focus” sure was not lost on the 50 Hereditary Chiefs of the Gitxsan Nation and their 5000 band members living in the north-western region of central British Columbia.

Just weeks ago, on the 14th of January, this same group of frustrated, disillusioned, yet determined people, filed a lengthy and controversial Complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) and the federal Minister of Justice, Mr. Irwin Cotler citing a shocking list of grievances against an array of highly prominent B.C. judges, lawyers, law firms, politicians and corporations all linked to a host of crimes ranging from misconduct to deceit, bribery, corruption, obstruction of justice and complicity, the sum of which has devastated and endangered the 33,000 square kilometre area of their traditional lands.

First and foremost of the complaints is the conduct of B.C.’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald J. Brenner while presiding over the “restructuring” proceedings related to a large forest products company in Prince Rupert, B.C.; one in which the provincial government held controlling interest and declining revenues. That initial example, shown in great detail within the lengthy submission, exemplified at the onset the serious nature of the many other accusations of fault contained within the document, illustrating once again the seemingly endless challenges which have plagued the treaty process in B.C. for decades.

Readers may recall that it was this same First Nation that captured headlines across the country during the latter part of the Mulroney era when what the Claimants describe as “arguably the most important case in Canadian jurisprudence” the Gitxsan Wet’suwet’en land claims trial, known as Delgamuukw, finally concluded with judgment on March 8, 1991, after 374 protracted court days stretching over a three year period.

According to Ron Jackson and Robert Jackson, the two signatories of the Complaint representing the 50 Hereditary Gitxsan Chiefs and their people, the original Delgamuukw trial was a staggeringly complex and insidious deception that saw figures from all levels of government, the judiciary, industry and the media conspiring to foist upon the general public, and specifically the Gitxsan people themselves, a horrendous “legal” hoax which would allow the B.C. government to further augment its power over the traditional territories of the Gitxsan Wet’suwet’en for the benefit of all vested interests except the indigenous inhabitants of the region themselves.

The list of characters in this epic drama of alleged deceit and corruption is so inclusive that it leaves no stone unturned insofar as the various levels of government and the judiciary are concerned. In fact the list of adversaries aligned against this beleaguered Nation has, in the eyes of the 50 Hereditary Chiefs, virtually eliminated any possibility that the Gitxsan Complainants might receive justice in their home province.

As the Complainants themselves state in their opening Introduction to the CJC, at para. VI: “Because the complaint not only implicates the BC Supreme Court Chief Justice and two other Supreme Court Justices, but also implicates and criticizes a frightening web of many others outside the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council (the BC Attorney General and Minister of Forests, Daniel Veniez, Skeena and New Skeena, West Fraser Timber, The Law Society of B.C., several “prestigious” law firms, numerous corrupt Gitxsan “leaders”, and is seriously critical of Premier Gordon Campbell’s office, BC – NDP leader Carol James office, I&NAC, B.C. Treaty Commission, senior RCMP officers and the media), this complaint is also being sent directly to the Minister of Justice for Canada. There is nowhere left in B.C. to turn for help.”

Traditionally, among Indigenous peoples, the circle has always represented Life and is considered to be a sacred symbol of the ways of the Great Creator. All things and events emerge from the great Mystery to traverse their various cycles and ultimately return once again to their source. How sadly ironic therefore that in all the years of negotiations that have taken place regarding their homeland, the Gitxsan people, like some lost tribe following and trusting their appointed leaders, should now find themselves back at the same point where they originally set out from only to realize at this late date that those in whom they had placed their trust and hope had betrayed them.

This is made succinctly evident in the Introductory statement of the Complainants (VIII): “After 15 years and countless $millions borrowed and spent in our legal system on Delgamuukw v. The Queen and another 5 years and more untold $millions borrowed and spent in the BC Treaty Commission, we have absolutely no practical result to show regarding our land claims except being told by the Supreme Court of Canada, 6 years ago, that we have to start all over – 20 years later – with a new trial. A new trial again in the B.C. Supreme Court, which we have every reason to believe, has already deceived and defrauded us and continues, as recently as December 9, 2003, to do so. The remarkable patience of the complainants and all the other Gitxsan people who have not been corrupted or collaborated with Government is exhausted….”

Complicity of course in this alleged betrayal of a nation required first an infrastructure to embody the planned treachery which the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs are now fully cognizant of. It also needed the willing assistance of insiders within the Gitxsan Nation in order that all the bona fide signatures were secured, the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted, ensuring that all the parties involved felt justice had been served.

Those within the leadership of the Gitxsan who chose to play the role of “collaborator” with the opposing parties involved were accordingly (as per the Complaint) bribed and persuaded to overlook specifics in the Delgamuukw document that, in hindsight, provided crucial licence to the various levels of government to fulfill their own agenda for the Gitxsan’s territories. After all, was that not the original intent in the creation of “Tribal Councils”? Was it not by design that these government imposed organizations were put in place decades ago to supersede the once Traditional systems of governance that the Indigenous peoples of B.C. had abided by for thousands of years? In this instance, as in many others, it proved to be an ingenious technique for acquiring control over Gitxsan lands, resources and ultimately, the needed funding in order for negotiations to proceed in the first place.

One of the most contentious and perennial issues for the Gitxsan has been the vast forests of their region, a resource of inestimable value to the people who have lived there since time immemorial. Unfortunately not only the Gitxsan people saw in these natural resources a valuable asset. The B.C. government and its Ministry of Forests, reinforced by the Attorney-General’s office and a phalanx of legal foot soldiers, also coveted these rich tracts of tremulous timber in order to increase provincial revenues and keep their corporate sponsors and tax-paying workers profitably employed. Thus, how to gain legal access to these otherwise indigenous-owned forests and, of course, other raw resources, became the driving force behind the government’s subsequent involvement in Delgamuukw.

A legal document, such as Delgamuukw, with which the province might gain the upper hand in negotiating access to the Gitxsan’s traditional property therefore became a top priority and one requiring the acceptance by the Gitxsan’s own legal representatives of specific wording within the signed agreement which would allow government lawful leverage to pry apart, parcel and designate said territories for special corporate affiliates within the B.C. forest industry. That is why the deleterious wordings (which the Complaint details) were surreptitiously inserted so that future rulings, such as the current controversy involving the “restructuring” of Skeena Cellulose Inc. (now called New Skeena Forest Products Ltd.) could be enacted, if deemed necessary, by government interests.

There is a common expression that fish, left for over a period of three days in the open, will begin to transmit an uncompromising odour commanding the attention of every functioning nostril within the immediate vicinity. To extrapolate from that truism to the situation at hand, with respect to the daunting problems facing the Gitxsan Nation, it can only be said that this kettle of fish is ripe to the point of rot and in need of drastic intervention by the federal authorities.

Lest one begin to think for even a moment that the Indigenous Gitxsan case is unique let us look at a similar situation on the opposite side of the planet (in India) where another group of Indigenous people have been struggling for justice and sovereignty on their soils. There it’s the ongoing fight to stop the flooding of lands by giant government dam projects.

In defense of their plight the internationally renowned Indian writer Arundhati Roy had the following fitting commentary to offer. In an article called, “Stop the DAMNing of the Narmada River!” her words ring out with a penetrating and clear resonance for the ears of all who fight for the right to live on their lands in peace and security. She says:

“To slow a beast, you break its limbs. To slow a nation, you break its people. You rob them of volition. You demonstrate your absolute command over their destiny. You make it clear that ultimately it falls to you to decide who lives, who dies, who prospers who doesn’t. To exhibit your capability you show off all that you can do, and how easily you can do it. How easily you could press a button and annihilate the earth. How you can start a war, or sue for peace. How you can snatch a river away from one and gift it to another. How you can green a desert, or fell a forest and plant one somewhere else. You use caprice to fracture a people’s faith in ancient things – earth, forest, water, air. Once that’s done, what do they have left? Only you. They will turn to you, because you’re all they have. They will love you even while they despise you. They will trust you even though they know you well. They will vote for you even as you squeeze the very breathe from their bodies. They will drink what you give them to drink. They will breathe what you give them to breathe. They will live where you dump their belongings. They have to. What else can they do? There’s no higher court of redress. You are their mother and their father. You are the judge and the jury. You are the World. You are God.

Power is fortified not just by what it destroys, but also by what it creates. Not just by what it takes, but also by what it gives. And Powerlessness reaffirmed not just by the helplessness of those who have lost, but also by the gratitude of those who have (or think they have) gained.

This cold, contemporary cast of power is couched between the lines of noble-sounding clauses in democratic-sounding constitutions. It’s wielded by the elected representatives of an ostensibly free people. Yet no monarch, no despot, no dictator in any other century in the history of human civilization has had access to weapons like these.

Day by day, river by river, forest by forest, mountain by mountain, missile by missile, bomb by bomb — almost without our knowing it, we are being broken.”

The Gitxsan Nation has played by the rules of the governing system and found that system to be inherently flawed and wanting. This final quest, the collective Complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council and the federal Minister of Justice, cannot be ignored further nor can its repercussions be underrated. A Sovereign Nation, the Gitxsan, has been betrayed by the very institutions whose fiduciary responsibilities have been written down since the Proclamation of 1763. There is no question any longer that these complaints need to be given the highest possible scrutiny and redress. Justice delayed is justice denied. Let us not fail the Gitxsan people a second time.