A surprise announcement on Dec. 2 has put the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs in the corner with Enbridge and their proposed Northern Gateway pipeline process.
Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick, whose traditional village is Gitsegukla, made the announcement on behalf of the hereditary chiefs and the Gitxsan Nation, saying that over time they have “established a relationship of trust with Enbridge.”
He said the chiefs have taken a detailed look at the proposal and believe that the project can be built and operated safely, and the agreement also means positive developments for his people’s economic development.In a conference call, Janet Holder, executive vice president of Western Access for Enbridge, said that it was entirely up to the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs to go public with this agreement, adding that there are other agreements in place with other nations. She wouldn’t elaborate on with whom.
“We are very mindful of the economic situation we have in our area,” said Chief Derrick. “We make a point of trying to bring investors into the … area so this is one way telling people in the investment community that we are friendly to business.”
This agreement is a product of Enbridge’s call in February of this year to offer First Nation groups an Aboriginal Economics Opportunities package. That agreement would see participating First Nations receive a share of 10 per cent equity in the pipeline.
Derrick said he doesn’t know what the final details will end up being in the agreement but money will flow to Gitxsan communities and that they believe the good will from the agreement will mean they are in line to benefit from employment opportunities.
The agreement is expected to deliver at least $7 million in net profit to the Gitxsan people, indicated a press release.
“It’s important for us to find other ways that we can get more benefits out of the natural resources that we’re gifted with. It’s important for the country, for our national government, to talk about national energy security and to start talking about building east west transmission lines for electricity as well as the east west pipelines so that more of the benefits would be realized by Canada and the investment community that operates within our borders,” he said.
The deal is only within the Hereditary Chiefs. When asked during the announcement’s teleconference about Gitxsan band councils involvement with this agreement, he said that the band councils had no say in this decision. He said their role is mainly in providing municipal like services to the villages.
There are 65 Hereditary Chiefs that were involved in this process and he said that it wasn’t a unanimous decision, rather it was made by a majority ruling.
He said he is hopeful this announcement doesn’t sour the relationship the Gitxsan has with neighbouring First Nations.
‘We have always been frank with our opinions on different projects. We respect the positions taken by the other First Nations, our neighbours,” he said.
Andrew Frank, an environmental communications specialist, was quick to reply to the announcement. Frank emphasized that all the coastal First Nations affected by the proposal are against the project, and that the Gitxsan territory is away from the pipeline route.
Derrick confirmed that their territory is not along the pipeline’s right of way but that the pipeline does cross five or six streams that flow into Babine Lake, which provides a lot of food for his people.
“First and foremost in everything we do is we protect our food supply. We have 90 per cent unemployment in our area and if our people didn’t have access to salmon and our waters were not protected then we’d have people starving,” he said.
Frank said that because the Gitxsan’s territory doesn’t cover the pipeline’s right of way, the Dec. 2 announcement is a strange endorsement.
“Endorsing a project in someone else’s backyard is like a homeowner taking a financial deal to approve a project that demolishes someone’s house on the other side of town,” he said.
But Derrick wasn’t fazed by the response.
“[He] can comment all they want about the colour of socks I wear or don’t … whatever they say, doesn’t matter.”
He said the agreement does include clauses which would allow the Gitxsan chiefs to back out of the arrangement if they feel that the land was not being protected to “Gitxsan standards.”
Skeena Bulklkey Valley MP Nathan Cullen weighed in on the matter with local media.
“It’s really in their [Gitxsan chief’s] own interest to be able to get back to people and clarify what exactly has just happened and where this decision came from,” he said. “House leaders and groups who should be involved in such a critical decision are being totally blindsided this morning.”
He said this announcement came out of left field .
“The notion that the Gitxsan, as a nation, are in favour of this project is a very hard thing for me to believe. It’s been just the absolute opposite since day one.”
Derrick told Black Press that he does expect there to be division among the Gitxsan community following this announcement.
“But we have to keep moving ahead,” he said.