Anti-pipeline Gitxsan angry over province's deal with unelected band chiefs

Opponents of Pacific Northwest LNG are upset hereditary Gitxan chiefs are working on an agreement with the province to support the project.

‘You’ve brought shame to Gitxsan’

A 900-kilometre pipeline from Hudson's Hope would carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. wells to the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG facility on Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert, for liquification and transport on tankers to Asia. (Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project)

Members of the Gitxsan First Nation opposed to pipeline development are outraged that nine unelected hereditary chiefs are working on a deal with the province connected to a natural gas pipeline on B.C.'s North Coast.

The documents were leaked and posted online, prompting an emergency meeting to discuss next steps.

"We had a full room speaking totally against what they've done," said Norman Stephens, a Gitxsan member opposed to the development.

"Words like 'shameful, you've brought shame to the Gitxsan,' those were used extensively."

Project supports Pacific NorthWest LNG

The agreement is connected to the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Line.

The proposed pipeline would bring natural gas to a terminal on Lelu Island south of Prince Rupert, located at the mouth of the Skeena River, which is B.C.'s second largest salmon-bearing river. (Canadian Press)

The line would supply the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which was approved by the federal government earlier this year. 

Opponents fear the development will damage the salmon-bearing Skeena River.

 "If they do that development, we will lose our fish," said Stephens. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that our fish stocks will be depleted. We will lose all of that."

Deal promises Gitxsan won't interfere 

Stephens is particularly upset by conditions that say the Gitxsan will not be allowed to prevent construction work.

Section 5.4 reads, "Gitxsan agrees not to support or participate in any acts that frustrate, delay, stop or otherwise physically impede the right of the Province or a Natural Gas Pipeline proponent ... to carry out any activities associated with the development and operations of that Natural Gas Pipeline Project."

Section 5.5 says the hereditary chiefs will help the province resolve any disputes that come up with members of the Gitxsan First Nation.

Conditional support, chief says

Gordon Sebastian is one of the hereditary chiefs to sign the document. He contends the agreement is not carte blanche to move ahead with the project.

"We consented to the trespass on certain conditions and if they screw up on those conditions, they lose their right to continue to trespass," he said. 

"We're controlling that project with our laws … they've agreed to meet a lot of those conditions and agree that the Gitxsan agree to consent to be engaged," Sebastien said.

In a statement, the province's Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation said a deal has not been finalized.

"The B.C. government does not have a natural gas pipeline agreement in effect with the Gitxsan for this project," said the statement.

"Government policy is to make these agreements public as soon as First Nations put them into effect.

"The content posted is internal to the nation and this appears to be an internal dispute." 

History of division

This is not the first time the Gitxsan have been divided on a development project.

In 2011, Enbridge announced it had signed a deal with hereditary chiefs in support of the Northern Gateway pipeline project. This prompted a blockade of the Gitxsan Treaty Office by members and other hereditary chiefs opposed to the project.

Hereditary Gitxsan First Nation chief Roy Wilson of the Wolf clan stands in front of the boarded-up Gitxsan Treaty Office in 2011. (George Baker/CBC)

Some of the confusion stems from the complex leadership system of the Gitxsan, which involves dozens of hereditary chiefs and multiple house leaders, as well as elected officials.

Sebastien said he welcomes the debate over developments in Gitxsan territory.

"We take what they [opponents] say, and some of them really help us in our negotiations," he said. "We can't think of everything."

Stephens, however, said the chiefs shouldn't agree to anything without consulting the rest of the Gitxsan members.

"This whole agreement has been designed behind closed doors," he complained.

"But now, suddenly, they come forward to meet with the Gitxsan only to tell them that yes, we signed this agreement with the nine so-called directly impacted chiefs."

He warned steps would be taken to prevent the deal from going ahead.

"We have recourse," he said. "You can't bind us to this."