12/08/2011 12:10 EST | Updated 02/07/2012 05:12 EST

Aboriginals for the Pipeline Deserve Our Support

Flickr: shannonpatrick17

Last week, the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan Nation, signed an agreement with Enbridge in support of the Northern Gateway. The proposed pipeline will be a $5.5 billion project that once completed would transport oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat.

The Gitxsan Nation has broken new ground in a number of other vital areas. The landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Delgamuukw case affirmed that Aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act. According to one of our pre-eminent constitutional scholars, Gerald Beaudoin, "Aboriginal title is, therefore, in substance, a right to territory and encompasses exclusive use and occupation." This judgement has had far-reaching implications for our understanding of Aboriginal title, which the Government of British Columbia had said were "extinguished." Not so, found the Supreme Court.

The Gitxsan fought long and hard for the recognition of their rights and were forced to resort to the courts for this affirmation. Since this legal vindication, the Gitxsan have been struggling once more, only this time at the treaty negotiating table to bring force and effect to the Supreme Court's judgment. The Gitxsan's key propositions are these: They want to be Canadians with no special status and enjoying all the rights and responsibilities that the rest of us take for granted; they do not want to be handcuffed any longer under the arcane auspices of the Indian Act; and they want to be able to unlock their economies by developing their lands and resources under the laws of Canada.

Unemployment on Gitxsan territory is over 90 per cent. Suicide rates among their young in Hazelton, B.C. and surrounding communities is appallingly high. So too is the incidents of drug and alcohol addiction. This is yet another lost generation in the making. Hope and despair is commonplace.

So, when the Gitxsan Nation -- through their duly authorized representatives -- tell us that they seek inclusion, we should listen. When they tell us that they support the pipeline project and other responsible economic development initiatives, we should be very encouraged. When they assure us that a sustainable and healthy environment is a cherished core value and does not conflict with economic opportunity that they sorely need, we should refrain from preaching from the comfort of our urban altars. When they plead with us to be included in making Canada stronger and more united, we should embrace them with enthusiasm. But when we hear them say that they despair at the lack of seriousness with which both Ottawa and Victoria are dealing with the Treaty process, we should pay attention and make our voices heard. And when they feel almost compelled to beg for the freedom that comes with equality of economic opportunity we must ask ourselves how we could have possibly let it come to this, and insist that our leaders to do better.

When I was chairman of Ridley Terminals, a federal Crown Corporation, I asked then Minister of Transport Lawrence Cannon to recommend to the federal cabinet that they appoint Elmer Derrick, a Gitxsan Hereditary Chief, to the board of directors. He did. Four years later and Mr. Derrick and the Gitxsan have been unflinching champions of the Port of Prince Rupert and the Northern Pacific Gateway Strategy. The Gateway is a vital trade link between Canada and the world. The rail line that carries Canadian goods to foreign ports -- including a wide variety of commodities -- runs through Gitxsan territory. Now they are signalling that they are prepared to take another giant leap by supporting the movement of Alberta products to world markets. That would strengthen and diversify the Canadian economy as well as reduce our dependence on the U.S. And that is in Canada's national interest.

The Gitxsan and so many other First Nations want to be full participating and contributing partners in Canada's future. We should applaud the acts of statesmanship, courage, and dignity shown by the Gitxsan people and other First Nations across Canada. What the Gitxsan Chiefs have done once again is selflessly demonstrate a profound willingness to create a more productive, inclusive, tolerant, and prosperous Canada. We have much to learn from them.