Saturday, June 4, 2011


Why do the Tsimshian First Nations have the desire for a comprehensive treaty Agreement? Why would they go through all the trouble to take on the federal and provincial governments? The Tsimshian people want change. They want the land and the rights they deserve. They want their rights recorded on paper and protected by all parties involved. The Tsimshian people want the government to promise that their rich heritage and culture will be preserved and that their artifacts will be treated with respect. The Tsimshian tribes have been involved in various treaty processes for the past 25 years and they still have not made the progress that they desire. The Tsimshian want the right to hunt, fish and practice the traditions that they've kept alive for thousands of years. The Tsimshian have held claim over their land for centuries and we need to fight to protect their claims to the region. Northern B.C is currently growing in population and is being recognized as a region rich in resources and natural bounty. Indeed, the Tsimshian region appears to have an endless supply of trees, fish and wild game but the unprecedented corporate interest in the area is going to cause a whole new wave of problems for the Aboriginal people who call this land home. Corporate interest will spell the expansion of cities, the clear cutting of forests and the creation of ports and industrial centres. In the past few years industrial endeavors have already created disputes between the federal government and local Tsimshian tribes. In 2007 a proposed industrial park in Terrace created a dispute with the Metlakatla Tsimshian clan. They claimed that the land had traditional meaning for their people and that the transfer of the lands ownership to the city would undermine their basic rights.

Who Are The Tsimshian?

The Tsimshian are known as the “People of the Skeena." They are a group of linguistically related people who are divided into four sub-groups. The Gitxsan, The Nisga'a, the Coast Tsimshian and the Southern Tsimshian. There is a substantial Tsimshian population in Alaska but the majority live on the Skeena and Nass Rivers in northern B.C. They are a proud people who have a history rich in tradition and legends. Many of their centuries old legends revolve around the Raven- the Trickster- and they incorporate this figure into totem poles and ceremonial art. The Tsimshian were known as proud warriors and skillful hunters. Wild game and salmon have always been a staple of the Tsimshian people's life and diet.

Currently there are estimated to be around 10,000 Tsimshian. They still live in their ancestral homeland and they continue the traditions that have served them for thousands of years. They have a hierarchical society and an individual's role in society was determined by their clan. The Tsimshian are now divided into sixteen bands and live on reserves in their ancestral territory. Salmon is still their most important food source.

Tsimshian Life Before European Contact

The Tsimshian occupied their region for centuries. They had an innate knowledge of nature and it was a cornerstone in every part of their life. Clans were the most important social structure for the Tsimshian people. The four clans of the Tsimshian are the Ganhada (Raven Clan), Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan), Laxbiguu (Wolf Clan) and Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan). The four clans are then divided into two halves: 1.) the Killer Whale and Wolf Clan and 2.) the Raven and Eagle Clan.
Marriage within a half-group- for example a Raven and an Eagle- was incestual and never occurred. Marriages could only exist between members of different halves. Clans gave individuals a sense of where they belonged in society. Hierarchy was an intrinsic part of society with nobles at the top and commoners and slaves at the bottom. Indeed they had a very advanced social structure.

Art has always been the Tsimshian people's main way of expressing themselves. Grand totem poles were situated in the Tsimshian villages and they usually depicted elaborate and dramatic legends. Red and black were the favored paint colors and nearly all art had a natural element. The Tsimshian included Ravens, Killer Whales, Salmon and animals that had meaning to their culture. In this way the Tsimshian were very dependent on the wildlife and resources that surrounded them. Crests for clans were made using intricate carvings and paintings. Clan based art was everywhere-on totem poles, shields, the walls of long houses and on cutlery.

Typically each tribe would have a winter settling village and then they would go on seasonal rounds for the spring and summer, taking advantage of the variety of seafood and wildlife available. Winter houses were made from red cedars and were typically 50 feet long and 55 feet wide. Inside the house was a five foot deep pit and a main fireplace. Extended families and clans shared these long houses.

Ceremonies and performances were important to Tsimshian life. It served as entertainment but it also conveyed the messages of legends and myths. large potlatches and feasts would be enlivened with song and dance. Special masks and clothing were made for these performances. These large performances were also an opportunity for individuals to celebrate their clans or hierarchy.

Salmon was an important part of the Tsimshian life. They would have feasts to celebrate a good salmon run and they used advanced fishing methods like nets. Berry and shrubs were used as adornments for the main feast and were also popular in warm summer months.

Tsimshian and the Effects of European Contact

Contact with the Europeans was based on the Tsimshian participation in the fur trade. Their first contact was with Russian fur traders but they were soon acquainted with American and British traders. The effects of the fur trade were initially positive. Tsimshian hunters could use their advanced skill to find top quality furs and trade them for foreign goods like knives, cloth and paint. During the contact period Tsimshian art and hunting methods changed slightly with the introduction of new tools and technologies. As the fur trade boom exploded the Tsimshian settled closer to the coast to enable easier and faster exchanges. Intermarriage occurred between traders and native women.

Unfortunately after continued contact with the European's smallpox spread and killed thousands of Tsimshian. Intermarriage began to affect the traditional practices of Tsimshian and cultural assimilation undermined their rich lifestyles. Less art was produced during the post-contact time and the occurrence of ceremonies fell drastically. The European contact had adverse effects on the Tsimshian culture in the long run. The solidarity and persistence of their traditions fell off and they adopted a more European way of life. Only in recent years have the Tsimshian people reclaimed their lost culture and tradition.

We need to realize that the European contact changed the way of life for the Tsimshian people forever. They lost the elements that make their culture unique and the European influence negatively impacted their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The pollution and settlement that followed changed the quality and quantity of seafood and wildlife and the government needs to realize this is a real problem. The Tsimshian people's culture and lifestyle should not be infringed upon by modernity. They deserve the dignity of having their homeland preserved. We are now seeing a resurgence in the amount of Tsimshian art and new generations are feeling a closer attachment to their past. The government should review the damages the Tsimshian people have weathered-particularly the smallpox epidemic- and should compensate them for it. The compensation could contribute to cultural revitalization programs and educational services.

Issues: Reluctant Government

The B.C and Canadian Government are not dictatorial bodies opposed to change. They do, however, like the status quo and avoid drastic changes if they can. This is why land claims treaties are brought up by the Native tribes in question. If no aboriginal tribe in B.C stood up and demanded rights the government would be more than happy not to address the existing problems. The B.C government is reluctant to get involved with the Tsimshian people because of a variety of economic and social factors. Northern B.C is an industrial hub and the center of extensive clear cutting. Logging and fisheries are two of B.C's most thriving industries. When the Tsimshian people demand borders for their land and exclusive rights the government gets nervous. They don't want to give up everything at once. Instead they slow down the process and offer small changes at a time, hoping to satisfy the Tsimshian people. But the Tsimshian have proven themselves a tough opponent.

Tsimshian Chief Treaty Negotiator Gerald D. Wesley states: “A Treaty will be constitutionally protected. That means no outside government will be able to change what is agreed to, at least not without going through a very defined, very carefully worked-out process. Essentially, it’s untouchable which is good but it also means the negotiations have to provide results that will be much stronger and more beneficial than they are weak. We need to look at a treaty agreement as a positive outcome that’s going to provide the tools and resources to make change as well as providing a level of flexibility necessary to address changing circumstances of the future.” (

This is a big step for the government. When they go through a treaty negotiation they are pledging millions of dollars. They are pledging their support to the Tsimshian people and they are granting them exclusive rights. The government is not always ready to make a big step and therefore avoids confrontation and tries to procrastinate on major issues of contention. The B.C government should look at a treaty with the Tsimshian people as a deposit for the future. If the Tsimshian people outline how they will use the money-for education, fisheries, local economy, for instance- than the government has the responsibility to present money for these projects. To decrease the fear of non-beneficial treaty negotiations I think the government should have a minimal level of input in the first couple years. A committee can help the Tsimshian towards autonomy will decreasing the chances of poor spending decisions. Once the Tsimshian are on their feet socially and economically than the government will step out of the picture and grant the Tsimshian the long awaited independence they've been working towards.

Issues: Unclear Land Borders

A proposed industrial park in the Northern city of Terrace has the Tsimshian people up in arms. The Tsimshian and Metlakatla tribes claim the land in question has been part of traditional Tsimshian life for centuries. The B.C Government intends to transfer the ownership of the land to the city of Terrace. The Tsimshian people claim an industrial park will infringe on their territory and negatively impact their quality of life. Currently a level of aboriginal approval is needed for projects slated for Crown Lands. The Allied Tsimshian tribes filed a request with the government that stated they had interest in the land and that they were opposed to construction.
The government is not eager to discuss land matters when they infringe upon and stall development projects that would increase local economy.
I think the policy that the government must discuss future developments on aboriginal land is fair and democratic but if their were clearer land borders for the Tsimshian people than the whole problem would evaporate. The government needs to address the issue of unclear land borders. If they procrastinate than problems like the Terrace Industrial Park occur and drain time and money from the government. Clear land borders would foster trust and confidence in the Tsimshian people. They have their own lives to lead and constant B.C government development proposals strain the relationship between the two groups. If the B.C government set aside a review committee to resolve this problem than they would never run the risk of building on Tsimshian land again. This would be a mutually beneficial arrangement for the Tsimshian, the local residents and the B.C Government.

Issues: Fisheries

Issues: Fisheries

A huge issue currently affecting the Tsimshian people is the matter of fishing and fisheries. The Canadian federal government has closed discussions on Tsimshian fishing matters until a royal commission into the Fraser River fishery is completed. The fishing issue if part of a lands claim treaty that's been more than a decade in the making.

The government refusal to discuss the fishing titles is a huge complication for the Tsimshian people. Fishing is an essential component of Tsimshian life, society, celebrations and culture. The governments unwillingness to review the matter is a passive aggressive act. The Tsimshian people require ceremonial, food and commercial entitlements to carry on with their traditional way of life. Numerous other First Nations groups in British Columbia- particularly in the Fraser Valley- have received allocations on fish and have the right to create laws regarding fish in their territories. The Tsimshian have received no such luck with the federal government. Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea states that “The Government of Canada is deferring the negotiation of fisheries components at treaty tables in British Columbia that involve salmon, pending the findings and recommendations of the Commision of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.”

While I understand that the motive of the commision into the river is to determine the basis of the treaty I also believe that the commision could take years. Shea continues with: “The findings ... may have implications for management of other Pacific salmon fisheries, and it is therefore prudent to defer negotiations on the fisheries components of treaties in British Columbia." Salmon runs have been affected in the recent years by pollution and industry and human activity contribute to the depletion of salmon in the Fraser River. But the Tsimshian people have been relying on the salmon in this region for thousands of years. They have managed and used this resource consistently throughout their history without ever exploiting it. Modern Canadian industry and corporations have managed to deplete the finite salmon resource in a decade while the Tsimshian have managed to conserve it over the course of centuries. This leaves little question in my mind about who should get primary control of the salmon resources in this region.

We must also remember that salmon is an intrinsic part of Tsimshian life and culture. It is important to them to an extent we don't understand. Their relationship with the salmon and the river is part of the metaphysical connection that the government needs to respect.

The Tsimshian clans have been trying to take matters into their own hands. They demand a presence during the committee meetings and they intend for their voice to be heard. Currently the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas clans are the most advanced of the Tsimshian First Nations in their proceedings with the federal and provincial governments.


1. The government should either put the commission on the Fraser River at the top provincial priority or they should give the Tsimshian people an equal authoroty in the proceedings
2. The government could reduce the territorial space that is involved in the commission by alloting half of it for Tsimshian use until further inquiry.
3. The government should give the Tsimshian people predominant control of the river in their region. They have after all kept the salmon supply stable for thousands of years and they have a mutual relationship to their land. We need to put the Tsimshian needs and knowledge before corporate needs and knowledge. Dozens of other First Nations groups have primary control of their rivers and they have the right to fish an allocated number of salmon annually with no government interference. The Tsimshian people deserve this same level of self governance.

What the Tsimshian People Need

What do the Tsimshian want and need? They need solidarity and basic protection. They want a land for their children to thrive in and they want a culture that fosters hope in future generations. The Tsimshian want to decrease federal infringements on their basic rights and they want to develop an equal partnership with the provincial government. From my research I have found six basic desires that the Tsimshian have. They need the government to take these steps in order to secure the continuation of their culture. These all require the cooperation of the government and the province of B.C.

1.) The Tsimshian want dignity, respect and authority in all their dealings with outside groups, organizations and government bodies. They want to preserve the traditions that define who they are. They want the Tsimshian culture to grow strong in the future and they want their people to feel pride. The Tsimshian have always been a strong group of warriors, hunters and spiritual leaders. They will do anything to avoid their rich history being compomised by mistreatment. The Tsimshian do not want to feel like a disenfranchised minority in a foreign land. They want spiritual and economic claims to the land that has been in their hands for millenia. With new government initiatives the Tsimshian can work on community development and create educational outreach programs to teach people about their people and traditions.

2.) The Tsimshian want it written in stone. They have experienced many tiring disputes over land and basic rights with the federal government and they want their rights solidly protected. The Tsimshian crave the comfort of knowing that the government can not arbitrarily change the agreements of the treaty. A treaty agreement will allow for self determined control and an enhanced role in local affairs. A treaty will convey the federal government's respect and appreciation for the Tsimshian culture.

3.) Most treaty agreements in B.C end with a capital deposit made on behalf of the federal government. The Yale First Nations, for example, have received over $10 million for educational and economic programs. The Tsimshian people should be getting these kinds of deposits from the government for various reasons. They are relatively isolated in location and they need a base amount of capital to create educationl, social and health services for their communities. A treaty essentially provides the tools for progress- for a brighter future. The Tsimshian will require a start up fund to create environmental and cultural initiatives. The Tsimshian are more than prepared for self determined rule and a self controlled economy. However, they absolutely need a deposit from the government if they are willing to make lasting changes that will positively impact their
future generations. In my opinion the government cannot pick and choose which tribes to financially support. Each tribe has contributed in different ways to our country and they must all be recognized for their contributions. I think the most beneficial step the government can take is to provide the Tsimshian money for environmental initiatives. As previously stated they have an innate knowledge of their ecosystem and they have hands-on experience on wildlife protection and conservation. We need to let the Tsimshian do what they do best-protect a delicate ecosystem from being exploited while fostering environmental growth.

4.) The Tsimshian want economic development initiatives from the government which are to be used strictly for the improvement and creation of Tsimshian industry. We need to see that talented Tsimshian entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to create innovative, successful businesses. The Tsimshian tradition is to work closely with family, neighbors and local tribes. Business, production and work are all intertwined with community, friendship and community bonds. This means that federal economic packages would not only stimulate Tsimshian economy but also Tsimshian life. By supporting their economy we will be supporting the bonds that bind the Tsimshian.

5.) Education is the cornerstone of a successful culture. First Nations children have repeatedly done worse on tests than other Canadian children. The high school drop out rate is higher for First Nations teenagers than any other ethnic group. The government has not directly addressed these issues. It is up to the Tsimshian community and local government to take their childrens education into their own hands. The government must provide financial support for this. Poorly distributed education is a national problem and must be treated as such. If the government financed programs to encourage First Nations education we could look forward to a bright, enthusiastic new generation who are interested in spreading their culture to the world. If education was self determined children could learn about their clans songs, traditions and legends at a young age. This would foster pride and interest in their background and in turn it would lead to a willingness to protect their culture. The Tsimshian want to establish an autonomous Tsimshian First Nations school district to start putting self determined education into practice. The Nisga'a tribe already has their own school district. The federal government and school board cannot make allowances for certain groups without considering making those allowances for every group.

6.) The Tsimshian people want their culture recognized and protected from industry or development. This means that areas they deem heritage sites are protected as such and that artifacts that have cultural significance are protected by the federal government. Many Coast Salish groups have the authority to make laws regarding the use, distribution and conservation of their artifacts. They have the right to access their tribes artifacts regardless of what museum they are located at. The Tsimshian deserve to have these rights, as well. They have a rich tradition of totem poles, elaborate carvings and beautiful garments. When the federal government pledges to protect these items-and the culture they represent- from disintegration they will have made a large stride in improving the relationship between the Tsimshian.

What Can Be Done

First of all the Canadian government needs to put money aside to promote the longevity of these dynamic peoples. They could create local community initiatives to teach children about their rich ancestral history.
Recognizing the meaning of salmon in the Tsimshian lifestyle will be a step towards giving them more rights over their fishing grounds. Like other first nations the Tsimshian deserve to practice their traditions. The Canadian Government and Tsimshian council can have a meeting discussing how to do this sustainably. I think if the Canadian Government ceded some power to the Tsimshian people then both groups could work together to create environmental strategies.

Tsimshian Treaty Negotiator Gerald D Wesley. states: ‘What can a treaty accomplish’? We don’t want to dwell on the history of our distant past, but we don’t want to lose it either. We must hang onto it, so that our younger people – the ones who are going to carry on – are proud of their heritage, and to realize what has brought them to the place they are at today. And hopefully show the path to a better place tomorrow.'. (

The Canadian Government can recognize that the Tsimshian people have the right to live, fish, hunt and travel in their traditional grounds. I think an agreement that the Tsimshian will do this with the environmental in mind could preserve some of B.C's most beautiful landscape.
I believe that the greatest feat will be an agreement between the Government and the Tsimshian tribes that has mental and environmental integrity as the main focus. The Tsimshian could lead sustainability initiatives in their area and this would lead to an overall increase in B.C's untouched, free-growth forest. The government should not expand local towns into Tsimshian territories if the Tsimshian promise to keep their land sustainable and beautiful.

Additional Sources and Useful Websites

Additional Sources and USeful Websites

'Tsimshian: Landrights Consultation Needed'. Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization, April 23rd, 2007.

'Tsimshian: Fish Missing from Treaty Negotiation'. Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization, April 15th, 2010.

'Tsimshian Treaty Negotiations'. Tsimshian First Nation Treaty Society, February 12th, 2010.

'Discussions with Tsimshian First Nations Chief Treaty Negotiator Gerald D. Wesley'. Tsimshian First Nation Treaty Society.

'Nations of the Northwest Coast'. Spirit Bear Gallery.

'Tsimshian'. EveryCulture.

'Tsimshian'. Simon Fraser University.