Aug 06, 2009

EES Week 15: Tsimshian, A Community Struggling for Resources


By Cris Boonen and Maggie Murphy



For centuries, the Tsimshian Nation has lived in small scattered communities spread out across what is today known as the Northern Coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Generation after generation of Tsimshian people have lived not just on the land, but with the land, making use of the abundant resources that flow from the rivers, reside within the earth and grow under forest canopies. However, the symbiotic relationship between the earth and the 10,000 strong Tsimshian community is increasingly threatened with every passing day. Once plentiful fish stocks are steadily depleting and resource ownership is an opaque subject. But it is perhaps the stark disconnect between traditional and contemporary lifestyles that is having the most severe impact. The problems that ensue by imposing unfamiliar bureaucratic frameworks onto traditional Tsimshian lifestyles leads to what Teresa Ryan, scientist and member of the Gitlan Tribe of the Tsimshian Nation, describes as “a bit of a mess right now”. 

Regulatory Webs
Access to land and resources that have traditionally been at Tsimshian fingertips is a moot subject. State-imposed regulations and restrictions have debilitated Tsimshian communities. Longstanding freedom to access land resources and fish stocks has been removed by government regulations such as the 1871 Fisheries Act which gave the Crown authority to control the entire fishing industry.

Attempts have been made to appease those with an interest in accessing the resources. Negotiation between British Columbia, Canada and the First Nations initiated through the British Columbia Treaty Process  was intended to produce a tripartite agreement on what the Crown refers to as “land claims”. The process started in 1992 and was expected to run for no more than five years. However, the last 18 years have yielded not a single concrete conclusion in Tsimshian territory and has fostered intense internal conflict. As a result of such a long drawn-out process, the various First Nations have accumulated an exorbitant amount of debt with substantial lost opportunities. 


Halfhearted Commitment
Solid financial commitment from the state to assist the different communities has generally been weak and inconsistent. Whilst the 175 million dollars made available for the Pacific Commercial Integrated Fisheries Initiative, a 5-year pilot programme intended to increase Aboriginal opportunities for commercial fisheries access (to all Aboriginal groups in BC), co-management, accountability and capacity building appears generous, it has not been substantial enough to generate any major improvements. The programme has focused on communal commercial fishing where aggregate groups will be challenged to achieve success without adequate support resources and compounded by declining fish stocks. Commercial fisheries access requires commercial type vessels and maintenance, or operations that are expensive and management is currently onerous and complex. The 175 million dollar investment has been a mere drop in the ocean.  

Furthermore, the Crown recognises Aboriginal rights in the Constitution of Canada but respecting those rights through management of lands and resources has been a major challenge to put into practice. Teresa Ryan believes that the signing of the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights has been avoided by the government possibly for fear of losing access to the rich resource base in the indigenous lands. The situation is missing a relationship of legal clarity. Only 11 national treaties and three related documents have been signed in a country in which more than 600 indigenous groups reside and these instruments have done little to advance proactive engagement. Comprehensive claims agreements also have been signed in some areas with few groups however implementation is constrained without adequate resources. 

For the Tsimshian, no such treaty or agreement exists. However, all hope is not lost. The Nuch-Chah-Nulth First Nation from West Coast Vancouver Island have recently brought Fisheries and Oceans Canada to court for violating Aboriginals’ right to access fishery resources and thus provide secure livelihoods. The outcome of this case taking place at the British Columbia Supreme Court, whether positive or negative, will increase awareness about First Nations’ access to resources.

Governance of resource management needs improvement to advance Aboriginal engagement. Opportunities for improvement exist such as improving relationships, by combining scientific knowledge and aboriginal knowledge to advance more holistic awareness of resources and complex environments, and strategically investing in institutional capacity.
    Lost Livelihoods
Several communities have for a long time relied directly on the economic value of natural resources for their livelihoods, and current resource management does little to promote the more ambitious entrepreneurialism found in historic practice. Unemployment has reached 90% in some communities since there are very few economic opportunities due to extensive restrictions. If restrictions remain, or indeed they remain to be clarified, unemployment will only increase. Drastic improvements need to be made to increase alternative employment opportunities. The current unemployment rate is disadvantageous not only for the Tsimshian, but also for the Canadian community as a whole. Teresa Ryan also notes that there are very few functioning programs that motivate students to aspire to resource management careers that would help their communities.
The manner in which the Tsimshian used to provide for their economic wealth was based on their reciprocal relationship to the land and resources and guided by thousands of years of accumulated experiences. Aboriginal knowledge should be valued and explored to assist the preservation of the local environments. Their in-depth understanding of their environs combined with an awareness of climatic and environmental cycles of change needs to be put into use. This knowledge is vital, and will assist the work of scientists who struggled to understand why the Pacific Ocean became devoid of plankton in 2005, and explain the developing effects of climate change on forests and fisheries. Capacity building projects are already being developed. Teresa Ryan is attempting to create programmes that provide young adults and children with opportunities to better understand the mining and fishing industries. By bringing awareness of these fields to children she provides an experience that may encourage them to be bolder when negotiating their way through a world that is vastly different from that of their parents and ancestors. However finance to expand these projects is always a constraint and international investors would be wise to take note of such lucrative opportunities.     Future thinking
There is a tendency to see indigenous peoples in North America as one uniform group, rather than a complex mesh of ethnicities, bands, tribes and clans. There are about 200 First Nations groups in British Columbia, across a great number of locations, speaking various languages with very diverse and unique issues and concerns. As a result, there are no one size-fits-all solutions to the multiple problems they face and organization amongst groups is difficult. This is in part due to the shortage of educated and skilled community leaders and also because cooperation between groups is difficult. Indeed, First Nations are often uncomfortably put in competition with each other to secure rare rights to access limited resources. This has fostered some conflict between the groups rather than create a united platform from which to call for greater recognition and an expansion of their rights.
Communities are finding it difficult to generate momentum on a political level to change legislation or increase their opportunities to participate in local decision-making processes. The situation requires that policy makers and investors should have better understanding of the problems faced by Aboriginal people and acknowledgement of the uncomfortable schism between traditional law and current law before any improvement will be seen in Tsimshian communities. If that does not happen soon, livelihoods will continue to suffer economic disadvantage and age-old wisdom will be irretrievably lost.  
Interview: Matthew Cousens