Upholding the Law, Protecting the Land, Sharing the Wealth

The Gitanyow Huwilp Recognition and Reconciliation Agreement

The announcement of a landmark agreement between the Province of British Columbia and the Gitanyow Nation in late September, 2012 was made with surprisingly little fanfare or media coverage. Yet the Gitanyow Huwilp Recognition and Reconciliation Agreement (the “Gitanyow Agreement”), covering the ancestral territories (Lax’yip) of the Gitanyow in the mid-Nass and Skeena (upper Kitwanga and upper Kispiox) watersheds, was of deep significance not only for the people, the land, and the water of the Gitanyow territories but for all British Columbians.  West Coast Environmental Law provided legal support to the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs in negotiating this agreement.

A cornerstone of the Gitanyow Agreement was provincial recognition of the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan (referred to in the agreement as the Gitanyow Lax’yip Land Use Plan). This plan provides direction about land and resource use in the territories of the eight Gitanyow Huwilp, which cover an area of approximately 6,300 square kilometers.

Gitanyow Hereditary ChiefsThe Wilp (plural: Huwilp) is the primary political, social, and decision making unit of the Gitanyow. Each Wilp has well-defined territories managed according to a strong and enduring system of land ownership and management. The Gitanyow Huwilp have exercised their authority and legal obligation to sustain and protect the land and resources of their territories for millennia, most recently through the development of the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan, which gives effect to and forms part of Gitanyow law (Ayookxw). Gitanyow legal principles that underlie the plan include:

  • Daxgyet: Honouring Wilp authority
  • Gwelx ye’enst: The ultimate responsibility of the Simogyet (Chief) to protect land and resources for present and future generations, including:
    • Ha’nii tokxw: the interconnected land, water, air and resources of the Lax’yip that provide food security, medicines and clean, abundant water for the Wilp; “our food table”; and,
    • Hla' Am Wil: the wealth of the land, air and waters of the Lax’yip that is sustained by healthy, functioning ecosystems and allows the Wilp to uphold the Ayookxw relating to land ownership.

Through the Gitanyow Agreement, the provincial Crown has agreed to the land use designations and management objectives in the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan and to legalizing them in Canadian law. The plan provides for the establishment and collaborative management of a new 24,000 hectare Conservancy in the Hanna Tintina watershed – where over 80 percent of the sockeye salmon in the Nass River system spawn –and close to 300,000 hectares of “Biodiversity Areas” designed to conserve values such as water, hydroriparian ecosystems, old growth forest and grizzly bear in this biologically rich area.

The Gitanyow have designated this conservation network as Ha’nii tokxw. Ha’nii tokxw means “our food table” and is the Gitanyow designation that encompasses the land, water, air and all resources associated with Hanna Tintina and the Biodiversity Areas set out in the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan. This designation reflects the intention to retain the landscape in a predominantly natural condition to maintain and enhance the availability of Gitanyow foods, and protect the water that is the lifeblood of the Gitanyow territories.

One of the innovations of the Gitanyow Agreement is the establishment of the Gitanyow Lax’yip Land Use Plan Monitor to further the Parties’ “common interest in achieving sustainability.” The work plan for the Monitor will include development of a framework and benchmarks for assessing the effectiveness of the land use plan at achieving Wilp sustainability in the Gitanyow Lax’yip based on best available science and Gitanyow knowledge. Within two years, the work of the Land Use Plan monitor will result in recommendations for amended or new land use designations and objectives (if required) to further protect Wilp sustainability.

With respect to environmental decision-making, the Gitanyow Agreement provides for the establishment of a Joint Resources Governance Forum composed of senior representatives of the Gitanyow and British Columbia and a technical body called the Joint Resources Council to, among other things, work on a consensus basis to ensure that all land and resource decisions comply with the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan.

The Gitanyow Agreement also provides for various economic measures and strategies. One key strategy is the development of environmentally credible and marketable “forest carbon offsets” resulting from the creation of the Conservancy and Biodiversity Areas. Conservation measures like these can reduce the massive release of greenhouse gas pollution when forests are logged and these carbon benefits can be quantified and sold in carbon markets. After covering Gitanyow expenses in implementing the offset sharing agreement and other Gitanyow obligations under the Gitanyow Agreement, the Parties agree to share the remaining annual carbon benefits 50-50.

With respect to forestry opportunities, the Gitanyow Agreement includes a commitment to convert the timber rights (tenure) provided for in the existing Gitanyow Forestry Agreement to a replaceable, area-based licence (subject to the availability of a suitable area), and the potential for the further conversion of the timber rights associated with this tenure to “a new form of tenure that would enable enhanced carbon stewardship through forest conservation and/or restoration activities.” This would be significant, as BC’s existing timber tenure system – through which most of the province has been allocated to private companies though various forms of licences –focuses almost exclusively on logging. 

The Gitanyow Agreement also provides for the development of an ‘Alternative Energy Action Plan’ with the intent of supporting the responsible development of alternative energy projects in a manner that takes into account Gitanyow Ayookxw (law) and values (as well as British Columbia’s goals in developing alternative energy), and which provides economic and employment benefits for the Gitanyow.

West Coast was honoured to provide legal assistance to the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs over the course of several years in drafting the Gitanyow Lax’yip Protection Plan and negotiating the Gitanyow Agreement.  The Gitanyow Agreement is part of a broader Gitanyow vision to secure the long-term, respectful coexistence of Gitanyow and Crown title.  It offers an important model for honourably reconciling First Nations’ and British Columbian land use laws and objectives, and a foundation for creating certainty and security for all.

By Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Senior Counsel

Photo of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, courtesy of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs; Photo of Jigsaw Lake, courtesy of Darlene Vegh.