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Gitxsan remain divided

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Opponents of the Gitxsan Treaty Society spent Monday preparing themselves for arrest. For much of the day, Gitxsan community members crowded at one end of Omineca Street before the Gitxsan Treaty Society offices while police assembled a block away.

The day had a strange character. A hot, sunny day in the north, people set up lawn chairs, visited friends and family, and wandered down the block to buy ice cream. Children played on the sidewalk, while elders sat and talked. However, beneath the conviviality of community life lay deep-seated tensions.

Although revenues from resource extraction on Gitxsan territories has long enriched government coffers, the Gitxsan remain among the poorest people in the province. For decades the Gitxsan people have struggled for recognition of their rights to their land. But within the community, there are increasing concerns that the people tasked with protecting Gitxsan territories at the negotiating tables have become disconnected from their communities.

On December 2nd, 2011, Gitxsan treaty negotiator, Elmer Derrick, announced the surprise signing of an agreement with Enbridge, backing the controversial Northern Gateway Project. A contested tar sands pipeline proposal, Northern Gateway has faced fierce opposition from dozens of other Aboriginal groups. In fact on December 1st, the previous day to the Gitxsan agreement with the company, more than sixty First Nations leaders declared their opposition to the proposed pipeline.

There had been little discussion in the Gitxsan community of the pipeline, and opposition to the announcement was swift. Elected band leaders announced their opposition, and traditional clan groups initiated days of meetings to determine the appropriate response. On December 5th, under the direction of a number of Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, a blockade of the Gitxsan Treaty Society offices was established. This formed the beginnings of the Gitxsan Unity Movement.

The Gitxsan Treaty Society, which also claims to follow the direction of a board representing the hereditary chiefs, filed for an injunction against the blockade. Despite noting legal irregularities in the functioning of the society and its board, the court perceived the blockade as illegally impeding the activities of the Gitxsan Treaty Society, and ordered an end to the blockade on December 7th. In the days and months since both sides have been to court repeatedly arguing over the legality of the blockade as well as the larger issue of who represents the Gitxsan.

On May 14th, both sides were back in court with the Gitxsan Treaty Society urging BC Supreme Court Justice McEwan to order the arrest of several Gitxsan hereditary chiefs supporting the blockade. McEwan seemed sympathetic to this request. At an earlier hearing, he decried how having “people carry on in a community flagrantly in violation of both the Criminal Code and a court law – and a court order” undermined “the whole idea of the rule of law.”

In court on the 14th, however, it was not simply the defence lawyers opposing the enforcement of a injunction against the blockaders. Representation for the the RCMP pressed the need peacefully manage the dispute and ensure public safety. They noted that 175 people gathered at the blockade fire to protect the hereditary chiefs, Delgamuukw, Dawamukw, and Guuhadakw, who had been targeted for arrest.

Sensitive to the often adversarial relationship between the RCMP and Aboriginal peoples, the police feared the potential escalation of events into a crisis situation. While Justice McEwan dismissed the police concerns, stating this isn't Oka, the RCMP lawyer countered that it could be. Despite Justice McEwan's directions to enforce his court order, the RCMP continued to maintain their desire for a mediated settlement within the Gitxsan community.

On Sunday, prior to the most recent court date, AFN Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and BC Union Chief Stewart Philip met with the competing factions of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs. The result of a long negotiations session was a preliminary accord to begin to mediate a Gitxsan solution to the crisis. The Mother's Day Accord required that both the injunction against the Unity Movement hereditary chiefs and the blockade against the Gitxsan Treaty Society be removed, that an independent third party secure the files in the building, and that the Gitxsan chiefs continue to work together to find a solution.

However, in court the Gitxsan Treay Society continued to argue for the enforcement of the injunction, while the Gitxsan Unity Movement continued to assemble in the street outside the Gitxsan Treaty Society office. With the RCMP's continuing reticence to intervene, Justice McEwan is reportedly considering ordering the Court Sheriffs to conduct the arrests, and a resolution to the conflict in the Gitxsan community remains a distant goal.

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