A First Nation, Again<br>The Return of Self-Government and Self-Reliance in Canada’s Nisga’a Nation
Edtor’s note: This article is adapted from a speech given by Joseph Gosnell on March 3, 2003, for the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Today I bring you greetings from a First Nation on the far side of this continent. I am happy to report that these people are alive and well. Isolated by distance and rugged terrain, they were more fortunate and escaped the fate of other aboriginal peoples—until much later on.
Imagine, if you will, a place of mighty rivers, teeming tidal estuaries, dense temperate rainforests, and towering mountains. A place of abundance and opportunity. Imagine a people living a traditional life, speaking their own language and living their lives according to their own ancient laws.
Now, imagine agents of a foreign government arriving in their territory and proclaiming it the property of a foreign king, asserting control over people’s lives, and embarking on an ambitious and systematic program of social engineering.
These events I describe are not ancient history. This was the world in which my grandfather was raised. I remember my grandfather’s adaawak—stories of growing up the traditional way. I remember his hands, his eyes, the sound of his voice.
These aboriginal people did not disappear. They reclaimed their identity, culture, land, and liberty—not through armed resistance, but through patience, determination, and principled negotiation. This is not a story of loss and assimilation, this is story of rebirth and recovery—the story of my people, the Nisga’a people.
The Nisga’a Nation is located on Canada’s Pacific Coast, in the Nass River Valley in Northwest British Columbia. It has been the home of my people for thousands of years. In the 1880s, much of our traditional territory was unilaterally declared “Crown land.” But no treaty was ever signed between our leaders and any government. In 1887, the Nisga’a sent a formal petition to the Privy Council in London to secure recognition of our right to our territory. We were denied.
Eighty-six years later, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its landmark decision in the Calder Case, which was brought to trial by Nisga’a Chief Frank Calder in 1973. In its decision, the court ruled that the Nisga’a had held aboriginal title before the arrival of Europeans. Formal negotiations between the Nisga’a Tribal Council and Canada finally began in 1976. Then, after a generation of Nisga’a leaders had grown old at the negotiating table, Canada’s Senate finally approved our treaty on April 13, 2000.
After ratification of the Nisga’a Final Agreement, the federal Indian Act—which governs the lives of Canada’s Native people—ceased to apply to the Nisga’a Nation. That day, the effective date of the treaty, was a historic and triumphant one for our people. It marked the end of a 113-year journey—and the first steps in a new direction.
The Nisga’a people have long sought to negotiate our way into Canada—to become full participants in the social, political, and economic life of our country. Our treaty makes this possible. Following more than a century as wards of the state, the Nisga’a people—empowered by the self-government provisions of the treaty—are rebuilding our nation. We are taking control of our destiny once again.
News of the Nisga’a Final Agreement has traveled far beyond the Nass Valley—across British Columbia, Canada, and around the world. Governments and aboriginal peoples are all watching the implementation of our treaty with keen interest. They are also seeking the advice of Nisga’a negotiators and government members. Aboriginal people from North, South, and Central America, Taiwan, Australia, and Scandinavia have all traveled to the Nass Valley to see Nisga’a government in action and to learn first-hand from the Nisga’a experience. The treaty is an inspiration for our people and other First Nations. We take great pride in this accomplishment.
At long last, through the self-government provisions of the treaty, we now have the legal authority to conduct our own affairs again. Under the Nisga’a Treaty, the Nisga’a Nation is a self-governing entity that is protected under the Canadian Constitution.
Why is it so important for us to have our own institutions? Why is it critical that we govern ourselves?
Back in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had this to say, “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism.”
And yet the question remains: What form of self-government are we talking about? For us, it’s a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” A government built on both democratic and traditional Nisga’a values. A government of our design and choosing.
Nisga’a government is composed of Nisga’a Lisims Government and four village governments. The Nisga’a Nation acts through Nisga’a Lisims Government, which consists of executive and legislative branches, as well as a Council of Elders. Nisga’a government is representative and responsible to its citizens. The president, chairperson, secretary-treasurer, and the chairperson of the Council of Elders are elected at large by Nisga’a citizens.
We govern ourselves according to Ayuukhl Nisga’a, the traditional laws and practices of the Nisga’a Nation. The Council of Elders provides guidance and interpretation of the Ayuuk to Nisga’a government. Composed of chiefs, matriarchs, and respected Nisga’a elders, the Council of Elders is appointed by our government in accordance with Nisga’a law and our treaty.
To us, self-government means having the freedom to live by our traditions—and to live with the consequences of the decisions we make. It means we are free to prosper by our own hand and ingenuity. It means we are no longer tenants on our own land—we are masters in our own house once again.
At long last, we are free to make mistakes and to take part in that popular pastime of all free peoples: The right to complain about our elected officials and the right to vote them out of office if we don’t like what we see.
Let me tell you—as the first president of the Nisga’a Nation, this is something I think about every day. Now that our treaty and government are in place, now that our land is secure—what’s next?
The Nisga’a Nation is working to support traditional culture, to cultivate new ways of economic and entrepreneurial thinking, and to establish the basis for a diversified and sustainable economy. We are exploring partnerships in fisheries, forestry, eco-tourism, hydroelectricity, and other areas. Nisga’a government is recruiting experienced business leaders to mentor and guide business development, and to help create a 10-year strategic plan that will set direction and identify the skills and training required for success. Throughout this process, we take care to ensure the separation of political decision-making and business operations. Together with our partners in the governments of British Columbia and Canada, the Nisga’a Nation is busy redefining our economic potential. In short, we have plenty of work to do.
Today, the Nisga’a Nation includes approximately 5,500 people, with the majority residing in four communities on the Nass River. Many Nisga’a people also live in British Columbia’s urban centers.
The Nisga’a Nation owns approximately 2,000 square kilometers of land in fee simple. The fee simple ownership of Nisga’a lands is now the most comprehensive in Canada. This includes surface, forest, and mineral rights.
Under the old reserve system, only a limited form of land ownership was possible. Prior to the treaty, we did not control the resources of our traditional territory. Title to the land upon which we lived was held by the federal government. For generations, Nisga’a could not acquire or sell property without the approval of the federal minister, nor could we enjoy the advantages of equity. Not surprisingly, no word exists in our Nisga’a language for “mortgage.” After the treaty, Nisga’a government began the process of granting our people the land beneath their homes.
On Canada’s Pacific coast, in the heart of the world’s largest temperate rain forest, we have always relied on a rich ecosystem that includes salmon, cedar, and fur-bearing mammals. Our lands and forests provide the foundation upon which the Nisga’a people have built a culture and economy that respects and protects the natural world. Under our treaty, the Nisga’a Nation owns the land and controls the resources on those lands. This new reality lays to rest the uncertainty regarding land ownership that has plagued our region. It is already opening the door for joint economic initiatives in the sustainable development of our natural resources.
We are at work in our forests once again. Nisga’a people work in all stages of our modern logging operations. Our treaty requires that Nisga’a forest practices meet or exceed British Columbia forest practice legislation and we are honoring this commitment while providing consistent, sustainable employment for forestry workers.
However, we do not live in a vacuum. As the rest of British Columbia suffers from the punitive U.S. softwood lumber duties, so does the Nisga’a Nation. But B.C.’s forest industry will weather this storm. When free and fair trade is a reality in the lumber industry, we will be ready.
We Nisga’a are known as the People of the Nass River. The Nass River is the lifeblood of an uncommonly rich watershed. It ties Nisga’a villages to each other and our land to the sea. It also connects the past to the future.
For thousands of years, the abundant salmon runs of the Nass River were harvested in a manner that allowed us to build and sustain our villages, and to develop trading relationships that extended into the interior and ranged up and down the Pacific coast. Under our treaty, we now have the right to fish throughout nearly 27,000 square kilometers of our traditional territory.
For the Nisga’a people, participation in the management of the fishery is vital for both cultural and economic reasons. Recognizing this, Canada and the Nisga’a Nation co-operatively manage the resource for the benefit of present and future generations of all peoples. In pursuit of this goal, we apply the highest possible standards in the areas of conservation and environmental protection. That commitment is ensured, in part, by the Lisims Fisheries Conservation Trust. Managed by trustees appointed by our government and Canada, the trust promotes conservation of wild fish stocks, sustainable management, and wildlife habitat restoration.
Since the treaty, Nisga’a Fisheries has enjoyed three successful seasons. In addition to our domestic harvest, under the treaty, Nisga’a fishermen are now able to sell our salmon on the open market. Prior to the treaty, this was prohibited. This new industry has enabled our communities to benefit significantly—in jobs, income, and self-esteem.
We are also building strategic partnerships.
For example, we’ve partnered with British Columbia’s leading businessman, Jim Pattison, to process Nisga’a commercial fish through his Canfisco Corporation. Through this alliance, a percentage of our annual catches are utilized for value-added products, including premium quality, specially labeled, Nisga’a wild salmon.
Through the treaty, the Nisga’a Nation is now free to seek independent means of power generation.
Like much of British Columbia, Nisga’a Lands are rich in hydroelectric energy potential. Our government is reviewing hydrology data with the goal of developing a small-scale hydroelectric generating facility in our territory. Should it be successful, this project has the potential to not only provide power for our people, but will also allow us to sell surplus electricity back to the provincial power grid—thereby generating an ongoing, environmentally-friendly revenue source for our government.
We are building infrastructure.
Now more than ever, prosperity depends on reliable transportation and communication. As economies and cultures become increasingly integrated, connecting the Nisga’a people to each other and to the outside world is critical for the success of both government and business initiatives. It’s about building pathways—both literal and virtual—to opportunity.
New road construction is underway in the Nass Valley. We are upgrading the highway through our territory and we are building an extension to our last isolated community. This road is being constructed through some of the most geotechnically challenging terrain in North America. These projects are providing employment for Nisga’a people.
While road crews work to link Nisga’a villages to each other, our government is also laying the groundwork for opening modern communication links to the world. We have launched a comprehensive feasibility study to determine the best way to provide broadband internet access for Nisga’a people, business, and government.
We are also investing in tourism. As an economic engine, British Columbia’s tourism industry is second only to forestry. Much of this success is tied to the province’s renowned natural beauty and wildlife. We are taking part in British Columbia’s tourism sector by showcasing our unique environment, our traditional knowledge of the land and water, and our rich cultural heritage.
We believe community involvement in healthcare is critical to the health and wellbeing of our citizens. That’s why we now manage our own healthcare services through the Nisga’a Valley Health Board. The board is responsible for creating and maintaining healthcare facilities and promoting public health. Our government also delivers family support services and special needs programs. Soon we will be providing foster care services.
We recognize the importance of education in fostering and protecting our language and culture. In our primary and secondary schools, approximately 560 young people are enrolled in bicultural and bilingual courses. We also have our own institution of higher learning. Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a—which translates as “Nisga’a House of Wisdom”—offers Nisga’a-based post-secondary programs in our communities. Scholars from as far away as Japan, Europe, China, and New Zealand have traveled to the Nass Valley to study with us.
Serving both Nisga’a and non-Nisga’a students, Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a partners with a number of public institutions for the delivery of programs. It offers vocational and technical training, Grade 12 achievement, university and college preparation, and a bachelor of arts degree in First Nations studies. Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a has enjoyed tremendous success with over 2,500 course completions to date.
We are working in partnership with the federal government to ensure the justice system reflects our values. The federal Aboriginal Justice Strategy provides funding to our government for access to justice programs. These programs encourage the revival of traditional Nisga’a justice practices, assist victims of crime, encourage crime prevention and foster restorative justice.
The relationship between our government and the federal justice system is notable for its innovation. Take fisheries offenses, for example. Here, federal prosecutors act on behalf of the Nisga’a Nation and prosecute violations under Nisga’a law. This legal relationship is unique in Canada and is an excellent example of concurrent jurisdiction.
Our treaty is innovative and far-reaching.
Nisga’a government authority is concurrent with federal and provincial authority. Nisga’a government has the power to make laws in 14 different areas that are quote “internal, integral and essential” to the Nisga’a Nation. And, when conflicts and inconsistencies arise with the other levels of government, Nisga’a laws are paramount.
We have control over our land and natural resources, education, health and social services. We have our own governmental institutions and traditions. We have true self-government by any measure. A more detailed description can be found in our second annual treaty implementation report.
Our treaty is just three years old and already British Columbians, Canadians, and the international community want to know: Have we been successful? Have we produced prosperity?
I, in turn, ask you: How do you measure the wealth of a people? Gross Domestic Product? Productivity? Debt-equity ratio?
Like the Nisga’a Nation, communities around the world are beginning to question the criteria for success imposed by outsiders. We have developed our own ways of measuring the wealth and wellbeing of our people. Unless “success” is defined by those who seek it, it will remain an illusive goal, an objective devised and judged by someone else, far removed.
Long before European colonization, the Nisga’a people had developed an elaborate society based on communal responsibility. We succeeded or suffered as a whole. Our economy was based on natural resources and we relied on complex trading relationships with our neighbors. Now, through the Nisga’a Final Agreement, we are once again defining ourselves by our own standards—measuring success by our own criteria.
We Nisga’a have always organized our lives and society around a concept called Saytk’ilh Wo’osim, which means “Our Common Bowl.” Under this principle, it is understood that since everyone relies on the same resources and community, all must contribute. It’s about sharing energy, wisdom, spirit, joy, and sadness and it touches all aspects of life. It means no one gets left behind. Nisga’a government uses this principle to guide the delivery of healthcare, education, and social services.
As we work to bring about economic prosperity, we will continue to enrich the lives of our people in traditional ways—ways which cannot be quantified by the exchange of capital. We will measure success—our “bottom line”—not by how a few individuals grow wealthy, but by how all our people prosper.
The Nisga’a experience offers lessons for other First Nations, for Canada, the United States, and the world. Lessons in tenacity and perseverance.
We learned that it does not pay to wait for a settlement or land claim. Aboriginal peoples must work to build a better future while they work to secure self-government. Our experience also teaches us that there will be no stable foundation for investment in British Columbia until we resolve the Aboriginal Land Question—once and for all.
The Nisga’a Final Agreement marks the end of a long, hard journey, and the start of a process of healing and renewal. It demonstrates that governments and First Nations can, as people of goodwill, sit down together to settle our differences and forge a more secure future for everyone.
Now more than ever, the Nisga’a Final Agreement offers a beacon of hope for aboriginal people. Treaty-making and self-government offer us a way out of uncertainty. It gives us a solid foundation upon which we can build new, positive relationships between governments and aboriginal peoples. Now that our treaty is in place, now that we control our own destiny, building these relationships is a top priority.
The hayatskw or “crest” of the Nisga’a Nation features a beaver rendered in the traditional forms and colors of Northwest coast aboriginal art. Over the years, the beaver was adopted as a Canadian symbol. It is also the emblem on our new flag. For us, the beaver represents the industriousness and determination of the Nisga’a people to govern ourselves on our own land. It also represents our long-standing desire to do so within—and as a vital part of—the wider Canadian family.
Has self-government solved all our problems? Certainly not. This treaty has not waved a magic wand over our territory. Instead, it has opened a door of opportunity—and we are walking though with our heads held high, eyes on the future, mindful of the hard work ahead.
We know the world is watching, as are our children and grandchildren. Most importantly our grandchildren—of which I have 16. You can rest assured we will not let them down.
Joseph Gosnell is president of the Nisga’a Lisims Government.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.