(Members of Wilp Nikate’en maintain a protest camp outside the former Gitxsan Mill. Photo: John Murray/APTN)
In the early morning hours in late August, and under cover of darkness, a group in camouflaged dark clothes snuck into the locked compound of the Gitxsan Forest Incorporated (GFI) in South Hazelton, B.C, retrieved keys from an office, started seven vehicles and proceeded to drive away.
At the gate sat a group of activists who were blocking the entrance – vowing to stay there until their demand to meet with GFI executives, the owners of the property and the abandoned mill on the grounds.
“We were sitting in the camp here and we heard all the vehicles door slam at once and we all just jumped up right away,” said Robin Muldoe was among the group blocking the entrance. “We were trying to ask them who they were, what they were doing.
“They were all dressed in black and camo.”
Muldoe said the vehicles nearly hit two people.
Rick Conners, president of GFI, told APTN News the company did not have knowledge of the action.
According to Conners, frustrated GFI employees took the initiative to retrieve company vehicles in a late night clandestine operation after being prevented from using the trucks to fulfill work obligations.
“Employees took matters into their own hands because we were losing jobs and people were being laid-off,” Connors said. “They went in there at two o’clock one night.
“They walked in the back road that the protestors didn’t know about- the back entrance, and they got the keys, they all jumped inside the vehicles, started the trucks, and drove them out.”
The vehicles belonged to Gitxsan Safety Services (GSS), a subsidiary of GDC, and the trucks were needed for work on the company’s other projects.
Conners said the RCMP were there by the side of the road.
“I’m happy to say that it was a non-event for an evening,” he said. “Outside that it surprised everyone and that we got our vehicles out of there.”
Conner said that it was the actions of frustrated employees who wanted to avoid any more work stoppages or lay-offs.
“My employees they’re pretty emotional about this stuff too,” he said. “And you got to know that I had to lay-off three people that very first day, two of which were relatives of these protestors. They were pretty disenchanted with the whole thing.”
The dispute erupted four days before the late night event.
At a community meeting on Aug. 20, members of Wilp Nikate’en decided to blockade the entrance to a Gitxsan Forest Inc. property.
They’re upset that the mill on the property has been dismantled and sold for scrap.
The Gitxsan Nation consists of up to 65 Wilps, or houses, which are then divided among four clans.
Wilp Nikate’en want a meeting with Gitxsan Development Corporation (GDC), the parent corporation of GFI, which Connors is president and CEO.
GDC is owned by a trust held by the Gitxsan Nation.
According to its website, it belongs to the “Gitxsan people. Its structure is unique to the business world, melding the traditional governance of the Gitxsan, to the contemporary needs of global businesses.”
Along with demanding a meeting with executives, they also want to be provided with financial documents, notified of all present, future, and past operations in Nikate’en territory, and request to know why the mill was dismantled.
On Aug. 21 Conners and two GDC board members, Hereditary Chiefs Jim Angus and Sadie Harris, visited the site and they were given a handwritten letter outlining demands.
Conners said they were there about three-and-a-half hours.
The activists also want acknowledgment that the mill and compound is on their traditional territory.
“We’re not going to leave until they acknowledge that we are the owners of this territory,” said Victor Robinson, Wing Chief of Wilp Nikate’en.
Conners asserts that the property in question is private.
According to his interpretation of the Delgamuukw decision, a 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Aboriginal Title does not include private property.
He even goes so far to say that the activists, including their hereditary Chief, are disrespecting their own Wilp.
“I heard a lot of misuse of a chief’s name, Nikat’een, which Frances Sampson holds that name, however, there were also three other chiefs there and I received calls from other chiefs that told me that if she is claiming that is her land,” he said.
“It’s not her land. My whole purpose is to stay uninvolved in-house business, in Wilp business. I’m here to basically create economic development for the Gitxsan if there is a house business issue I run away. I run away out of respect.”
Conners said a few chiefs function outside that system to the disappointment of many chiefs.
“I’m about the Ayookw, I`m about respecting their cultural values,” Connors said. “And I’m also about making sure that I follow the law as far as the province of B.C. is concerned.”
Conners uses the laws of B.C. by seeking an injunction.
The blockaders insist that the injunction was not only excessive, but Connors also disrespected Gitxsan culture by seeking the court order during a funeral feast.
“When the injunction was put into place, we had asked Rick Connors and a couple of Gitxsan board members to defer filing an injunction until after we dealt with a death in our house group,” said Robinson.
“The board members said they would but didn’t. Either that or Rick didn’t listen. So he went to court on the day of the funeral and feast and filed an injunction for our house group to leave our spot here.”
The still valid injunction was in place on Aug. 29 and the RCMP set the boundaries. Then the RCMP came back again and had them move.
With the injunction enforced the blockaders have been reduced to the role of picketers.
They are situated on the road across from the property and are using signs and engagement to raise awareness as the temperatures continue dropping.
Creating jobs is their end-game but Conners insisted the mill is wrong for the type of lumber and fibre of the region.
He said even if it were suitable, it has been damaged by years of vandalism and theft.
Robinson said Wilp Nikate’en can develop the land if GDC has no desire to.
“It seems they have abandoned it because they have sold everything,” said Robinson.
“And it’s no longer any use to them so there should be no issue transferring title to Nikate’en so we can develop it.”