01/15/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Northern Gateway Pipeline: Elmer Derrick Lone B.C. Chief To Back Enbridge Deal Amid Overwhelming Opposition

TERRACE, B.C. - His office door is nailed shut. A 24-hour volunteer watch by area residents has been on guard for his return since Dec. 5.

Posters showing his face and questioning his authority are up across northwest B.C.

It's little wonder that Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick prefers the darkness of his front door to talk.

"I've been very ill," he said, refusing requests to illuminate the doorway.

Derrick has adopted a low profile — some say he's been in hiding — since reports surfaced about the $7-million deal he signed with Enbridge Inc., (TSX:ENB) builders of the proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline, on behalf of the Gitxsan people.

"I know we still have a deal with Enbridge," he said in a rare interview since his support was announced. "The chiefs have not told me otherwise."

Derrick shrugs off observations that, so far, he's the only aboriginal in British Columbia to publicly voice his support for the Northern Gateway project and sign a deal in exchange for an equity stake.

The twin pipeline from Alberta to northwest B.C., will allow Alberta oil to be loaded onto tankers and shipped down the West Coast to Asian and American markets.

"From what I can find out, I believe that I think an offer was made to at least 40 different nations in Alberta and B.C. and from what I've been told, at least 25 nations have signed the agreement," Derrick said.

"I think national energy security is important to this country and we need to find different ways to bring employment opportunities to our communities."

Derrick said aboriginal rights and titles issues must be resolved as part of any pipeline development, but the agreement he signed with Enbridge represents an economic opportunity for his people.

"Very little economic activity is taking place here and it's even worse when you focus on people of my colour," he said.

"People of my colour never even get an opportunity to get work, they're usually at the back of the line."

Sammy Robinson, whose Haisla community around lies about 200 kilometres northeast of the town of Kitimat, has come to a different conclusion.

Like Derrick, Robinson was born to his job, inheriting the title of chief and the leadership responsibilities that come with it.

The hereditary Haisla chief told the opening day of environmental hearings in Kitamaat Village last week that he spent his childhood on his family's ancestral trapline, an area that could be destroyed if there were a catastrophic oil spill.

In his speech, he tried to introduce panelists to the land he and his ancestors have known since, as his mother once put it, "the trees were this small."

"She motioned with her thumb and her index finger almost together," he told the panel.

Robinson explained the area is full of the Haisla people's history, from the carvings of killer whales and other creatures, to the wooden tub his father built at a nearby hotspring.

There's also a rock outcropping that generations of Haisla have used to teach their children about sex and the faint, ancient paintings explaining who owns the area and who has been there.

"I’m one of the last ones that can read the signs and it makes me — tears come out of my eyes," he told the panel.

Unlike Derrick, Robinson has concluded the jobs and the potential prosperity that Northern Gateway might bring are simply not enough to overlook the horror that an oil spill would cause.

"We are going to take whatever it takes to stop them," said Robinson.

But Derrick said he believes the deal he signed with Enbridge on behalf of the Gitxsan remains.

He said he's preparing to meet with local leaders on Tuesday at an undisclosed location to discuss the agreement.

Gitxsan Gilbert Johnson said he can guarantee the meeting won't occur in Derrick's office at the Gitxsan Treaty Society building in Hazelton, located about 1,200 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

Johnson said he boarded up the front door of Derrick's office and he's been part of a camp that's been sleeping outside of the building for more than a month.

"I've heard that we'll probably never stop Enbridge, but if we can keep them off Indian land, that's good enough for us," he said.

Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, the organization representing the leadership of the numerous Gitxsan bands, recently tried to distance itself from Derrick's Enbridge deal and the Treaty Society Office, which Johnson boarded up.

"The chiefs who oppose Enbridge remain firm in their resolve that the Gitxsan Treaty Society is to be shut down as it is clear that the organization is renegade and has no connection with the Gitxsan chiefs and the community," said a statement by the hereditary chiefs.

Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said the company believes it has a deal with the Gitxsan and it's up to the Gitxsan to resolve their dispute over the agreement internally.

The First Nations Summit, the largest aboriginal organization in British Columbia, sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper warning that B.C. First Nations demand full consultation about Northern Gateway or face complete opposition, including court battles.

Because most of British Columbia is subject to treaty talks, court action has the potential to tie up the Enbridge project for years.

"The significance of this project should make clear to Enbridge and to Canada and British Columbia that First Nations will use every option in front of them to ensure that their concerns and interests are protected and heard," said summit spokesman Chief Douglas White. "This includes legal processes."

By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press