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Who Speaks for First Nations?

Posted on 15 December 2011

This is one I’ve been meaning to write for a bit. It started December 2, when news broke that the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs in northeastern B.C. had apparently entered into an agreement Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project. The exact words:

“On behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick today announced an agreement with Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines to become a partner in the ownership of the $5.5 billion project to export oil to the Pacific Rim.”

On the heels of an alliance of First Nations leaders signing an agreement  to block the project, this was reported as a modicum of support. Which it was, I suppose, but it quickly became more complicated than that.

On Twitter and Facebook, Gitxsan were quickly voicing their opposition to the project. And before long, a press release came out saying that the Gitxsan people were outraged by the decision. Who put it out? Gitxsan band leaders and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs.

Then things got more complicated. Elmer Derrick and two other employees of the Gitxsan Treaty Society were fired. Except they weren’t. And then there was a protest outside the treaty office. Which has now been ordered to be shut down. Except it isn’t.

So what’s going on here? Well, like anything involving deciding who is the voice of the people, it’s complicated.


A Bit of Background

Before going further, I want to stress that I am not an expert on the Gitxsan, and I don’t want to pretend to be one. Any information I pass here is completely as a lay-person, and the material I’m working with is very much up for interpretation. I only intend for it to be a starting point for a wider discussion. That said, I think it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of how things work in order to get to the heart of these recent events.

Until very recent times, the Gitxsan were governed by a matriarchal hereditary system. According to the Gitxsan Treaty Society’s website:

All Gitxsan belong to a Wilp, which is the basic unit for social, economic and political purposes. The Wilp is a collection of closely related people. It consists of one to several families and membership can number from 20 to more than 250 people. Each Wilp has a hereditary chief. A hereditary chief may have several wing chiefs who perform particular functions for House members such as planning and administering forestry work, tourism initiatives or commercial fishery undertakings.

There are more than 50 Wilps (House groups), each with their own territory within the Gitxsan nation.

That system continues to survive, and I understand that there are in the dozens, possibly over 100, hereditary chiefs today.

In parallel to this is the more recent band council system. This system was set up by the Canadian government, and involves a system of government more familiar to most Canadians: regular elections choosing leaders.

At least one of the issues is a conflict between whether the hereditary chief model or band council model winds up choosing the “legitimate” leaders of the Gitxsan. This came into play in a court case filed earlier this year. I am going to borrow wholesale now from the blog BC Treaty News, which outlines the issue thusly:

“Gitxsan treaty negotiations have taken a long time and cost a lot of money. However, the Gitxsan treaty negotiations are slow going, in part, because the Gitxsan are trying to create their own unique arrangements with BC and Canada. The concept they are pursuing is the Gitxsan Alternative Governance Model. It is characterized in four parts:

  1. Taxes: the Gitxsan are prepared to pay income and sales taxes just as other Canadians.
  2. Parallel society and Indian Status: the Gitxsan are not interested in the “parallel society” concept at the heart of (which drives) the standard treaty model.
  3. Land and economic development: the Gitxsan are not interested in negotiating for “treaty settlement lands.”
  4. Uniqueness: ratification requires explicit recognition that the concept of “Bands” and “Gitxsan” are not identical.
Essentially, Gitxsan negotiators want the Gitxsan to be equal but unique Canadians. The Indian Act is completely removed in exchange for a piece of the wealth generated on Gitxsan traditional territory. The wealth would go to the Gitxsan hereditary chiefs to be re-distributed through traditional practices.
The Gitxsan are not united on the issue. A group representing the status quo under the Indian Act are trying to stop the advancement of the Gitxsan Alternative Governance Model. They claim that the Gitxsan Treaty Negotiators are negotiating away their rights, including Indian Status. They also claim the Indian Act and reserve system is integral part of sustaining Gitxsan culture because the reserve system creates enclaves of Gitxsan speakers. The background information and Statement of Claim is here. In the ruling for Spookw v. Gitxsan Treaty Society, at line 47 the judge states the case “…is not a matter of aboriginal law”. Rather, it is a political matter internal to the Gitxsan.
The plaintiffs take issue with the mandating system. In Spookw v Gitxsan Treaty Society, the judge relates the Gitxsan case to a prior case,  Tsimshian Tribal Council v. British Columbia Treaty Commission. The prior case is cited at line 42. Quoting the prior ruling the judge implies the Gitxsan matter is a political one:

“The question of for what and how the Tsimshian community should be negotiating is an internal question to be decided collectively by its membership.  It cannot be decided by the BCTC or by the court.  The requirement of securing and advancing a mandate is an open one conducive to debate, persuasion, and resolution through ongoing processes.””

What all this boils down to is one portion of Gitxsan leadership is trying to negotiate with the B.C. government. Another portion disagrees with what this first portion is trying to do and has taken them to court to argue they are unable to do this.

The divisions are not precisely the same ones that have come up in this Enbridge argument, but they are similar: a group claiming that the treaty society can make decisions on the one side, and a mixture of elected band leaders and hereditary chiefs on the other.


Not A Homogenous Unit

There was a mistake, I think, in the initial media coverage of the Gitxsan agreement. The press release said “Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick” and an assumption was largely made that “hereditary chief = leader.” As we have seen, that is not the case. While the title of hereditary chief means something, it does not mean anyone who holds it speaks for the Gitxsan. We have multiple hereditary chiefs on opposite sides of this issue. The reason Elmer Derrick was making an announcement was because he was the lead negotiator, not a hereditary chief. Including the honorific in the coverage was akin to referring to someone as “alderman” or “Dr.” It designates their role in some aspect of society, but is not necessarily relevant to the matter at hand. It was not until competing press releases were put out that we even saw any sign that there might be some conflict in this seemingly simple manner.

What I take from all of this is the reminder that the “Gitxsan” or “First Nations” or “Aboriginal people” of Canada are not, and must not be treated as, a homogenous unit. If Stephen Harper makes an announcement, the media goes to the NDP for a reaction, because there is an assumption that there are competing viewpoints. When “Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick” makes an announcement, it took a while before anyone went looking for that competing Gitxsan viewpoint.


So…. who speaks for First Nations?

But before anyone takes this as a good reason to do away with First Nations autonomy altogether in favour of a system more easily understood, I ask you this– who speaks for Canada?

Consider an issue in the news now, Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol. The Conservatives were elected to a majority government. They went to negotiate with other nations. They chose to withdraw from this particular negotiation. Does that mean they speak for all Canadians? Based on the reaction, obviously not. We have elected leaders in the NDP and Liberal who are criticizing these moves. We have people protesting in Montreal saying the government does not speak for them.And we have the fact that the Canadian government, when the Liberals were in power, supported the protocol. The Conservatives are moving away from that commitment. But to an outsider not following the internal politics– Canada signed on, now Canada is signing off.

On other issues, such as the crime omnibus, we have a group of provinces led by Quebec and Ontario saying they will not enforce the rules passed by the federal government. Who legitimately speaks for Ontarians? Their elected leaders in Toronto, or those in Ottawa? Who speaks for British Columbians– the elected provincial government that signed up for HST, the small majority that chose to get rid of the HST, or the elected federal government that may or may not let B.C. back out of the deal without paying some significant coin?

My point being that even in a system more of the mainstream population understands, the question of “who speaks for x?” is not always easily answered.


But they were elected…

Then there’s the issue of whether or not hereditary chiefs can ever speak for a group of people better than elected band councils can. This is an issue with a long political, judicial, and moral history and one that I don’t have the capacity to delve into fully here. It is a multi-book length argument.

What I will say is this: there is a lengthy (and ongoing) political, judicial, and moral discussion tackling precisely this question. It is tackled to an extent in Delgamuukw, a landmark court case which the Gitxsan played a key role. It is tackled in multiple policy papers and university courses and academic treatises and ongoing community discussions around the country. And it is not as easy a question to answer as it might seem.

Governments only work if the people they purport to represent view them as legitimate. A minority government is able to “speak” for the Canadian people because enough Canadians view the way they were elected as legitimate to prevent the whole system from breaking down. If a government is democratically elected, but the people it wants to represent don’t think it got there by legitimate means, it cannot be effective.

There are members of Aboriginal people in this country who do not believe democratically elected band councils are legitimate. The system does not come from any pre-established methods of government, but rather the colonial Canadian government. They question how a system set up by colonizers can legitimately speak for them. As such, what to an outsider may look like a more legitimate form of government may look like a oppressive tool to them.

I’m not saying I take either of these viewpoints. I’m not saying this is a majority view, or even a widely-held view, because I legitimately have no idea how widespread it is. I do know it exists, because I’ve both heard and read it presented. I’m simply attempting to convey the way this seemingly simple question can become more complicated.



This is a messy post, without a well-formed argument. I’m not sure it successfully conveys what I’m trying to get across. What I do know is that throughout history and into the modern world, governments have struggled with the question of which other governments to recognize as legitimate: China or Taiwan? Quebec as nation or province? Palestine or Israel, or which combination of the two? And the question of who the people themselves view as their legitimate leaders is equally complex. Less people voted for the Conservatives than voted for someone else, and yet Harper is on the world stage, purportedly representing all Canadians. Whether any individual Canadian views him as their legitimate spokesperson or not falls on all points across the spectrum.

If I have any point, it’s this: in international issues, we expect some messiness, and some diversity of views. We expect the same when covering federal politics, provincial politics and municipal politics. We should expect no less- and equally important, no more– from First Nations governments, their leaders, and their citizens.

Filed under: Aboriginal, Best Of, British Columbia, Canada

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