The Nisga’a have lived in what is now northwest British Columbia since time immemorial. They never signed a treaty or ceded their territory, but the province denied that Aboriginal title ever existed. The stalemate lasted for more than a century until in 1973 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Aboriginal title did exist, had never been extinguished, and that governments must negotiate with the Nisga’a. It took another twenty-five years before a treaty was completed. In 1998, the B.C. government introduced a bill to accept the treaty, and on December 2, Nisga’a negotiator Joseph Gosnell was invited to speak to it. Legislation enshrining the treaty was subsequently passed by both the B.C. and Canadian governments.
“A generation of Nisga’a men and women have grown old at the negotiating table”
A beacon of hope
Madam Speaker, today, I believe, marks a turning point in the history of British Columbia. Today aboriginal and non-aboriginal people are coming together to decide the future of this province. I am talking about the Nisga’a treaty, a triumph, I believe, for all British Columbians and a beacon of hope for aboriginal people around the world.
It’s a triumph, I believe, which proves to the world that reasonable people can sit down and settle historical wrongs. It proves that a modern society can correct the mistakes of the past. As British Columbians, as Canadians, I believe we should all be very proud. It’s a triumph because under the treaty, the Nisga’a people will join Canada and British Columbia as free citizens, full and equal participants in the social, economic and political life of this province and, indeed, of this country. It’s a triumph because under the treaty, we will no longer be wards of the state, no longer beggars in our own land. It’s a triumph because under the treaty, we will collectively own approximately 2,000 square kilometres of land, far exceeding the postage-stamp reserve set aside for us by colonial governments. We will once again govern ourselves by our own institutions but within the context of Canadian law. It is a triumph because under the treaty, we will be allowed to make our own mistakes, to savour our own victories, to stand on our own feet once again. It’s a triumph because, clause by clause, the Nisga’a treaty emphasizes self-reliance, personal responsibility and modern education. It also encourages, for the first time, investment in Nisga’a lands and resources and allows us to pursue meaningful employment for our own people from the resources of our own territory.
To investors, it provides economic certainty, and it gives us a fighting chance to establish legitimate economic independence, to prosper in common with our non-aboriginal neighbours in a new and, hopefully, proud Canada. It’s a triumph, Madam Speaker and hon. members, because the treaty proves beyond all doubt that negotiations — not lawsuits, not blockades, not violence — are the most effective, honourable way to resolve aboriginal issues in this country. It’s a triumph, I believe, that signals the end of the Indian Act, the end of more than a century of humiliation, degradation and despair for the Nisga’a nation.
An epic journey
In 1887 my ancestors made an epic journey from the Nass River to here, Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Determined to settle the land question, they were met by a Premier who barred them from this Legislature. He was blunt. Premier Smithe rejected all our aspirations to settle the land question. Then he made this pronouncement: “When the white man first came among you, you were little better than wild beasts of the field.” Wild beasts of the field. Little wonder, then, that this brutal racism was soon translated into narrow policies which plunged British Columbia into a century of darkness for the Nisga’a and other aboriginal people.
Like many colonists of the day, Premier Smithe did not know or care to know that the Nisga’a is an old nation — as old as any in Europe. From time immemorial, our oral literature — passed down from generation to generation — records the story of the way the Nisga’a people were placed on earth and trusted with the care and protection of our land. Through the ages, we lived a settled life in villages along the Nass River. We lived in large, cedar-plank houses, fronted with totem poles depicting the great heraldry and the family crests of our nobility. We thrived from the bounty of the sea, the river, the forest and the mountains. We governed ourselves according to ayuuk Nisga’a, the code of our own strict and ancient laws of property ownership, succession and civil order.
Going to court
In 1968 we took our land question to the B.C. Supreme Court. We lost but appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, where in 1973, in what is now known as the Calder case, the justice ruled that aboriginal title existed prior to Confederation. This initiated the modern-day process of land claims negotiations. The government of Canada agreed it was best to negotiate modern-day treaties. Canada agreed it was time to build a new relationship based on trust, respect and the rule of law. In time, as you will know, Madam Speaker, the province of British Columbia came to the negotiating table as well. For the past 25 years, in good faith, the Nisga’a struggled to negotiate this treaty, and finally it was initialled in August in our home community of New Aiyansh.
World has changed
How the world has changed! Two days ago — and 111 years later, after Smithe’s rejection — I walked up to the steps of this Legislature as the sound of Nisga’a drumming and singing filled the rotunda. To the Nisga’a people it was a joyous sound — the sound of freedom. Freedom is described in the dictionary as “the state or condition of being free, the condition of not being under another’s control, the power to do, say or think as one pleases.” Our people have enjoyed the hospitality and the warmth of this Legislature, this capital city, its sights and its people. In churches, schools and malls, streets and public places our people have been embraced, welcomed and congratulated by the people of British Columbia . . .
But believe me and my colleagues; it has been a long, hard-fought battle for those that went before us. Some may have heard us say that a generation of Nisga’a men and women have grown old at the negotiating table. Sadly, it is very true. I was a much younger man when I began, became involved in the tribal council; I was 25 years old. Today I’m 63; today my hair is greying. I’ve gone through six terms of Prime Ministers and their chart. I recall their names — the Rt. Hon. Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Jean Chrétien — and five British Columbia Premiers — Bill Bennett, William Vander Zalm, Rita Johnston, Mike Harcourt and, yes, Glen Clark. I will spare you the list of deputy ministers, senior bureaucrats and other officials. There are numerous names that we have met across these many years. Their names, I believe, would paper the walls of this chamber at least twice.
We are not naïve. We know that some people do not want this treaty. We know that there are naysayers — some sitting here today. We know that there are those who say Canada and British Columbia are giving us too much, and a few who want to reopen negotiations in order to give us less. Others, still upholding the values of Smithe and Scott, are practising a wilful ignorance. This colonial attitude is fanning the flames of fear and ignorance in this province and reigniting a poisonous attitude that we as aboriginal people are so familiar with.
But these are desperate tactics, doomed to fail. By playing politics with the aspirations of aboriginal peoples, these naysayers are blighting the promise of the Nisga’a treaty not only for us but for non-aboriginal people as well, because this is about people. We’re not numbers . . .
The world is our witness
We have worked for justice for more than 100 years. Now it is time to ratify the Nisga’a treaty, for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to come together and write a new chapter in the history of our nation, our province, our country and indeed the world. The world, I believe, is our witness to the endeavours that we have encountered. [Nisga’a spoken.]
Madam Speaker, on behalf of the Nisga’a nation, I greatly appreciate the privilege that has been accorded to me to address this chamber. Thank you.
Source: Debates of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, December 2, 1998, Volume 12, Number 17, pp: 10859-61.
More information: In his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada, Dennis Gruending treats Joseph Gosnell’s speech and its impact in detail. See also a description of Gosnell prepared by the office of the Governor General upon Gosnell’s induction in 2006 as a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Photo: Office of the Governor-General of Canada.