Gitxsan First Nation Can Now Move Forward with Reconciliation of Lands with Traditional Model without Looming Debt
STATEMENT ISSUED MAY 5, 2020
Hazelton, BC: Almost a year after the Federal Government released details about the loan forgiveness plan for treaty negotiations, the First Nations Summit Task Group has notified Chiefs, Leadership, and Negotiators that over $919 million related to land claims has been forgiven by royal assent effective March 31, 2020.
As of this date, loan forgiveness is in full effect having gone through all of the necessary legislative measures required.
“The federal government decision to remove land negotiation debt is the right one. Our people have been laboring for decades against the colonial system to protect our ancient land tenure, something that has come at a cost to us as individuals and as a Nation. Without this debt looming over our heads, we can begin to focus on how to improve economic conditions in our community and other matters of importance to the Gitxsan,” says Gordon Sebastian, Director of the Gitxsan Treaty Society (GTS).
"BC First Nations have been going through the process to resolve this matter with Canada and British Columbia and in doing so we’ve been driven to borrow money from the very governments who took our land in the first place. It’s about time a more financially meaningful way is established to reconcile Indigenous land issues."
This announcement is expected to benefit First Nations, Inuit, and Metis across the country, with the most impact in BC as fewer treaties have been ratified. Indigenous groups have been asking for loan forgiveness for years, arguing against the borrowing, and then repayment, of monies to protect land that was never given up.
The First Nations Summit, in an earlier statement, said: “Treaty negotiation debt has left First Nations at a significant financial and economic disadvantage. This debt has also had detrimental economic, social and political impacts on First Nations that have been working to resolve the outstanding land question in BC through treaty negotiations for decades.”
The Gitxsan Treaty Society was established in the early 90s with members of the Chiefs Advisory Team known as CAT (with three members from each clan) who worked on the Delgamuukw court case.
For its part, the Gitxsan Treaty Society will receive $26 million in loan forgiveness for funds that have been accessed through the loan system and distributed over the last 25 years. Loan funds have been allocated to fund negotiators, administrative, legal, and travel expenses, and other operational costs.
The Gitxsan Treaty Society has approached treaty negotiations as a mechanism for government to understand that each Chief (and Wilp, House group) owns a portion of Gitxsan land which added together total 33,000 sq km of land. The Gitxsan First Nation has approximately 14,000 Gitxsan members and 60 Simgiigyet (Hereditary Chiefs). The approach is one that focuses on Hereditary Chief land ownership and not on following one that transfer traditional lands to Band and Council which is considered colonial and still under the Indian Act.
With the new changes that have been adopted within the Provincial and Federal reconciliation mandate, this allows for the Gitxsan traditional land tenure model to be more widely accepted and will prove to be less challenging in settling Indigenous land issues.
The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have had to play hard ball with the government for agreements that benefit the Nation, including forest licensing. More recently, the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have led the formation of the Gitxsan Huwilp Government of which each participating Chief is an autonomous governing entity. This approach is a different approach than what most Indigenous groups who are negotiating treaties in BC – whereas in their situations any lands negotiated by Treaty are managed by Band and Council which is a colonial structure that was set up during the Indian Act. The Gitxsan specify that their land ownership follows their historical traditional structure which has existed before colonial times and before the Indian Act. This structure gives each Head Hereditary Chief autonomy to make decisions for their laxyip (traditional territory). Currently the Gitxsan Huwilp Government has participation from 48 of 60 Hereditary Chiefs with the mission to be inclusive of all 60 in the near future.
Treaty negotiation support funding allocated by the Treaty Commission is now 100 percent contribution funding. Moving forward, it has replaced negotiation support loans with non-repayable contribution funding for First Nations participating in modern treaty negotiations. Canada provides over 90% of the contribution funding and BC provides the remainder. All of the funding is hinged upon an agreed Tripartite work plan and until one has been reached there is no negotiation discussions that will be planned.