In the arms of the mighty Skeena

By Ana Simeon, RAVEN Campaigns Manager


This summer I was privileged to visit Gitxsan, Gitanyow and Lake Babine Nations in north-western B.C. – communities that have all been impacted by the rush to extract and sell off resources, regardless of Indigenous consent, rights and title.


On our way back to Victoria, just as we were leaving Kamloops, we heard that Petronas has pulled the plug on the Pacific North-West LNG project. Contrary to popular belief, the Petronas project is not dead yet! In July, the company announced that they intend to pull out of the LNG project on the Skeena and Lelu Island, and they are now preparing to file a court application asking the judge to discontinue the Judicial Review cases. A discontinuance means that all the federal project approvals would stay in place. If this happens, issues at the heart of the case would not be heard, including key questions of Aboriginal rights consultation, the standing of Indigenous leaders, and the worrisome possibility that the project might be revived at any time in the future. The story is not over yet and RAVEN will be standing with the Gitxsan, Gitanyow and Gitwilgyoots all the way!

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This was my first time venturing north-west of Prince George, and I found the distances immense and humbling. My husband and I had spent some time camping in the backcountry at the beginning of the trip, and so it wasn’t until we arrived at the PetroCanada gas station in Houston and tried to get gas (there wasn’t any) that we heard about the wildfires. Route 97 was closed from Clinton through Quesnel, disrupting delivery of all kinds of supplies, from gas to the Globe and Mail. This was our first object lesson in the realities of Northern living. Self-sufficiency, good neighbourliness and local food security are not optional when you live in Houston, Hazelton or Kispiox. Knowing you can rely on your veggie garden, your neighbours and salmon from the river is as important here as an earthquake kit for Vancouver Islanders getting ready for the “big one”.


Arriving at a Gitxsan cultural camp on the Suskwa River, run by Wilp Luutkudziiwus, one of the eight Huwilp (Houses) of the Lax Ganeda (Frog) Clan – we experience this community-based economy in action, as the Gitxsan have practiced it since time immemorial. Rafters are going up on the bighouse which is being built next to the sturdy cabin where camp participants cook and sleep. A steady stream of visitors drop by with lumber and food, including a humongous pot of curried chicken and a yummy rhubarb cake. Somebody is watching the smokehouse 24/7 where bear meat is being smoked in the traditional way. Youth and elders gather to pass on and hear teachings, stories and songs.


Of course, this community-based economy depends on the integrity of the land and waters. In the Skeena, much of that integrity is still intact: we saw plentiful bears, deer, eagles, songbirds and fish. (And equally plentiful and lively mosquitoes, a key link in northern food webs. No mosquitoes, no songbirds. It’s a small price to pay to experience the grandeur of the Skeena.) At the same time, the scars of mining and logging are clearly evident. Yet those will heal in time. The threat of LNG to the salmon nursery around Lelu Island is an entirely different beast: without salmon bringing nutrients from the sea back up the watershed, everyone and everything will suffer in ways we can barely imagine.


The next day we are invited to a traditional feast of Wilp Gwininitxw of the Lax Gibuu (Wolf) clan. For the Gitxsan, feasts are not just a way to maintain the social fabric, but an important part of Wilp governance and the sharing of wealth. Important decisions are made and witnessed by the whole community; ceremonial names may be given; gifts are given to all participants. (Indeed, at the feast we attended, everyone was given so many gifts that cardboard boxes were provided to take it all home: food, household goods, art, and/or money. Witnessing the gift economy in action was moving and humbling.)


The feast opened with prayer, and Simogyet (Chief) Gwininitxw welcomed everyone in Gitxsan and English. For many hours, as Gitxsan youth served us dish after dish, I listened spellbound to the Simgigyet (Chiefs), Sigid’mhana (Matriarchs) and other speakers address us in Gitxsan, with some English thrown in here and there for non-Gitxsan guests. That the Gitxsan language is still alive and well, that the Gitxsan culture has triumphed in the face of a concerted and violent campaign, waged over decades, by settler Canada, is a testimony to the resilience of the Gitxsan spirit. It gives me hope for the future.



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