Original Peoples, Sovereignty, Industry, and Salmon

Part 3 of 3

Read Part 1 and 2.

… Indigenous peoples are not typically respected, even at the level of text, never mind at the level of geo-politics, as possessing ‘true’ sovereignty.

— T’uu’tuk1

[I]t seems unfair that the coastal Indian, who had little or no opportunity of entry into other industries, and who still depends in large measure upon the salmon for his winter food supply should have to bear the privation which results from the white man’s invasion of the coast.

— Hugh W. McKervill2

LAX KXEEN3 – In January, a two-day Salmon Nation Summit discussed the science behind a corporation’s bid to set up industry in salmon habitat, habitat that is on unceded Ts’msyen territory.

Concern for the wild salmon was generated by the proposal of Malaysian state-owned Petronas to construct a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Lax U’u’la (Lelu Island) in the Kysen (Skeena) River estuary. The estuary is vital salmon habitat, and hard science warns that the LNG project is a danger to fish habitat.4

Because of the importance of Lax U’u’la [Place of Seals] and Flora Banks (the seabed and waters adjoining the island) for salmon, in 2015 the people of Lax Kw’alaams unanimously rejected an offer of $1.14 billion from Petronas subsidiary Pacific NorthWest (PNW) LNG.

Murray Smith, elder and tribal speaker of the hereditary chiefs of Lax Kw’alaams opened the Salmon Nation Summit calling on people to “stand up to big government, big industry and say ‘no.’”

This is not meant as a “no” to any LNG facility anywhere, hereditary chief Yahaan of the Gitwilgyoots Glat’sap (tribe) of Lax Kw’alaams told American Herald Tribune. But any project must exist in harmony with the environment. In the case of Lax U’u’la, however, the environmental consequences are considered too risky and grave.

Defending Salmon: A Keystone Species

The salmon is a keystone species, crucial for the bears, eagles, seals, and the temperate rainforest. It is also important for the Salmon People5 ,6 who revere the salmon. The first salmon caught during the season is celebrated like an “honored guest of the rank of a visiting chief.”7

At the Salmon Nation Summit, biologist Jonathan Moore explained the importance of Flora Banks as a freshwater-salt water transition zone for adult salmon returning from the sea to spawn and for smolts preparing to head out to sea.

The summit’s conclusion acknowledged the science and issued a declaration that Lax U’u’la and Flora Bank are to be protected in perpetuity from industrial development. Signatories included hereditary leaders from the Nine Allied Tribes of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, hereditary leaders of the Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en, Lake Babine, and Haisla First Nations. Grand chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs also signed the declaration, as well as all four of the region’s elected political representatives.

Hereditary chief Na’Moks of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation said, “Once again First Nations are being forced to take action because the government refuses to obey the laws of the land. We are salmon people and if we don’t defend Flora Bank, there will be no protection for our salmon. The salmon is who we are, and without them we lose our identity and our future.”

“The Lelu Declaration sends a powerful message to Premier Clark and Prime Minister Trudeau,” said chief Yahaan. “The support to stop this LNG project is overwhelming. Nations are united from the headwaters of the Skeena River to the ocean. Together, we will fight this to the end.”

Petronas, however, appears hunkered down to push its project through.

“This is the right project for Petronas. There are noises but in the long run, we’ve got big resources, we are a big LNG player, we have secured the market,” said Petronas president and group chief executive officer Datuk Wan Zulkiflee Wan Ariffin.8

Petronas Promises

PNW LNG says it will create 330 direct operational long-term jobs, about 300 local spin-off jobs for the local community, and as many as 4,500 jobs during peak construction in an environmentally safe and sustainable manner. Once up and running, PNW LNG forecasts contributing up to $1.3 billion annually to federal, provincial, and municipal government coffers.

PNW LNG has received environmental approval from the provincial government subject to eight conditions and awaits a response from the federal government to the project’s environmental assessment application.

Chief Yahaan points out that the Skeena River already brings in $110 million a year, and this green economy would be at risk.

Whose Territory?

PNW LNG states the project “will be located on federal lands and waters under the authority of the Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA) and within Tsmishian traditional territories.”9 What does this mean? Is it federal or is it Ts’msyen territory? What is the purpose of placing the adjective “traditional” in front of “Ts’msyen territory”? If indeed it is Ts’msyen territory, why not simply state that without the adjective “traditional”? That something was a tradition does not imply that such circumstances currently exist. For example, traditionally the British monarchy enjoyed absolute rule, something that severely waned following the signing of the Magna Carta.

Since the people of Lax Kw’alaams rejected big money from Petronas, in what appears to be de facto recognition of Indigenous sovereignty by Petronas, a Plan B was required. Petronas appears to be pursuing two tactics: 1) divide the First Nations, and 2) deny First Nation sovereignty.

Chief Yahaan told American Herald Tribune: “Lelu Island is the common ground of the Gitwilgyoots [People of the Kelp]. We never gave away anything.”

“We will fight tooth and nail to preserve it.”

PNW LNG had a report prepared entitled “Aboriginal Use and Occupancy of Lelu Island, 1793 to 1846,” wherein it couched any intentions by stating this “is not a strength of claim analysis.”10

The report cites a discrepancy over whether the northern Gitwilgyoots or southern Gitxaala [People of the Open Sea] tribes has stewardship over Lax U’u’la11 and points out there is “no written or archaeological evidence for a permanent occupation site on Lelu Island.”12 Lax U’u’la, it writes, is “federal property, and the custodian is the Prince Rupert Port Authority.”13 The local tabloid newspaper has also played up a division between Gitwilgyoots and Gitxaala.14

Chief Yahaan said, “We need to iron out our differences in-house.” He pointed out that the discrepancy in views were presented by a Gitxaala spokesman. “The [Gitxaala] tribe as a whole hasn’t made such a statement [of support for the LNG project on Lax U’u’la].”

Petronas plays it both ways, it claims federal ownership, seeks to divide First Nations on stewardship, then attempts to buy off Lax Kw’alaams and fails. It appears a curious strategy of preparing for all contingencies and pulling every trick from the bag to achieve access to Lax U’u’la and it waters.

PNW LNG has sent contractors to drill and survey, creating environmental havoc. Warrior Publications reported, “Lax U’u’la land and water is also Gitwilgyoots territory. Nobody other than the Sm’oogyet [chief]–not the Port, the federal, or the provincial government can authorize any development in Gitwilgyoots territory. Only the Sm’oogyet Yahaan has jurisdiction in this territory, and in the efforts to protect his community, he has said NO to any LNG plant development on Lax U’u’la.”15 Eventually chief Yahaan led an “occupation,”16 still ongoing, of Lax U’u’la to protect the island and waters from further disruption by surveyors and drillers.

As to sovereignty, some excerpts from the PhD thesis of Robin Gray (T’uu’tuk), a Ts’msyen from Lax Kw’alaams, speak to a Ts’msyen viewpoint, a viewpoint also shared by some non-Indigenous people: 

“Ts’msyen sovereignty predates the settler state, and it is thus inherent; it is also active because despite the efforts of missionaries and government agents to make our tribal system disappear, it has not.” (p. 28)

“Since time immemorial, we have persisted in and outside of our territories because of our profound spiritual connection to our lands and waterways. Our lands and waterways have taught us how to be Ts’msyen, and this land-based pedagogy is the foundation for who we are. It is our connections to place first and foremost that shape our identities, and that govern our relationships and responsibilities to human and non-human worlds.” (p. 36)

“What I have witnessed was not a quest to reclaim culture per se, but an ongoing process of maintaining what we have; resisting colonial dispossession in all its forms; and reclaiming all that has been illegally or unethically taken from us.” (p. 183)


In Canada there is a legally recognized duty to consult by governments with First Nations and it is referred to whenever there is some form of industrial design on First Nation territory.

Legal expert Bruce Clark presents an argument that places the hammer unequivocally in First Nation hands as far as what transpires in their territories:

The case law [Mohegan Indians v. Connecticut (1773); Cameron v. Kyle (1835); Campbell v. Hall (1774)] confirmed that colonial governments had no inherent sovereign power to interfere with natives’ pre-existing power to govern themselves. Since no explicit power was granted by the imperial government to the colonial governments allowing them to change the imperial policy respecting aboriginal rights, the necessary consequence of this limitation upon colonial government power is the continuity of the natives’ right not to be ‘molested or disturbed’ by these colonial governments.17

UBC Law professor Douglas Harris found the right to salmon is a legal right for First Nations.

The important point is that Native peoples controlled their fisheries through right of use and exclusion that predated non-Native interference…. The Native’s claim was a moral and ultimately legal claim, based not only on efficient management or material need but also on a sense of right that originated within their cultures.18

Nevertheless, Harris notes that law has been abused “by colonial powers to take and justify control of other territories and peoples.”19

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada grudgingly became a signatory, has many articles relevant to the Ts’msyen people’s battle to keep Petronas off Lax U’u’la.20

It is too late in the case of Sakhalin Island’s Indigenous people to prevent the wild salmon catastrophe that occurred after the LNG project there.

What transpires or not on Lax U’u’la will reveal the level of respect Canada currently has for First Nation sovereignty and the the level of adherence the government of prime minister Justin Trudeau has for Canada’s own laws, treaties, and international law to which it is a signatory. Also it will reveal Trudeau’s own fidelity to his pledge of a “sacred obligation” to First Nations.

To conclude on the question of sovereignty, if Canada is largely unceded territory, if the treaties entered into were on false pretenses, signed under duress, or otherwise abrogated by the colonial/settler governments,21 then the question ought to be to what legitimacy, legal or moral, the federal and provincial governments in Canada can lay claim.

• First published in American Herald Tribune.

  1. Robin R. R. Gray (T’uu’tuk), “Ts’msyen Revolution: The Poetics and Politics of Reclaiming,” PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, September 2015, p. 182. []
  2. Hugh W. McKervill, The Salmon People: The Story of Canada’s West Coast Salmon Fishing Industry (Sidney, BC: Gray’s Publishing, 1967): p. 145. []
  3. The colonial designation is Prince Rupert, “British Columbia,” “Canada.” []
  4. See Part 1 and Part 2. []
  5. Wyampum woman Elizabeth Woody wrote that west coast Indigenous people’s relation with the salmon relation goes back at least 12,000 years. See “Recalling Celilo”: 8-15. In Edward C. Wolf, Richard Manning, and Edward C. Wolf (editors), Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Portland, OR: ecotrust, 2003). []
  6. “The relationship between salmon and the Tsimshian is thousands of years old and rooted in respect.” In An Anthology told by voices of the Tsimshian, Łuutigm Hoon: Honoring the Salmon (Prince Rupert, BC: Tsimshian Nation and School District 52, 1999), p. 5. []
  7. McKervill, p. 8; “Salmon are our relatives and we need to continue to honour them as such.” Voices of the Tsimshian, p. 5. []
  8. A. Jalil Hamid And Mustapha Kamil, “Petronas CEO: we’re in for long-haul,” New Strait Times Online, 13 October 2015. []
  9. Pacific NorthWest LNG, “Marine Resources and Project
    Interactions: Research Results,” January 2016. (p. 3) (pdf). []
  10. Prepared by Adrian Clark for Pacific Northwest LNG Ltd., “Aboriginal Use and Occupancy of Lelu Island, 1793 to 1846,” 12 December 2013. (pdf) (p. 2) []
  11. Ibid, p. 2, 17. []
  12. Ibid, p. 2. []
  13. Ibid, p. 11. []
  14. Shaun Thomas, “Lax Kw’alaams position ‘irresponsible’,” Northern View, 30 September 2015, p. A1-A2. []
  15. Oct 10 Update from Lelu Island,” Warrior Publications. []
  16. There is an irony in using the term occupation of an Indigenous people in their own territory, especially vis-à-vis a colonialist-settler government and an overseas corporation. []
  17. Bruce Clark, Native Liberty, Crown Sovereignty: The Elusive Aboriginal Right of Self-Government in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), p. 38. []
  18. Douglas C. Harris, Fish, Law, and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 7. []
  19. Ibid, p. 186. []
  20. E.g., Article 4
    Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

    Article 26
    1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
    2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
    3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and

    Article 29
    2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.

    Article 32
    2. States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources. []

  21. See e.g., Clark, op. cit.; Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2014); and Kerry Coast, The Colonial Present: The Rule of Ignorance and the Role of Law in British Columbia (Clarity Press and International Human Rights Association of American Minorities, 2013). []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.