Lax Kw’alaams, a Tsimshian village north of Prince Rupert formerly known as Port Simpson, finds itself in the news frequently because part of its traditional territory is proposed for a huge, new, liquid natural-gas plant. Lax may also become well known soon for another historic reason.
Frequent reports in various media have referred to “division among hereditary chiefs” in regards to the proposed LNG plant. This is incorrect. All hereditary chiefs in Lax Kw’alaams have publicly stated their support for the project, in writing with signatures, in a document published in the Northern View newspaper in Prince Rupert and on their own website (laxchiefs.com). They state that “certain members of the tribe continue to claim to represent its members to the public, but have done so with no tribal authority … in particular tribal member Donald Wesley.”
When that document was published, lawyers representing Wesley threatened to sue the Northern View. Wesley and his legal team have subsequently filed an action in Supreme Court to overthrow a decision by the federal government that gave environmental approval for the LNG plant. In an affidavit supplied in connection with the lawsuit, Lax chiefs explain in detail why Wesley isn’t now, nor has ever been, a hereditary chief.
The Tsimshian are a matrilineal society and children inherit their position in the tribe from their mother. Tribal members can’t move up in the hierarchy from their position, only sideways. Wesley was born out of wedlock and has no official standing even in his own tribe. His mother was adopted from another tribe and has no official position in her new tribe. His mother married a man of the same crest, which is completely taboo. The name Wesley picked for himself (Yahan) is extinct. It belongs to another man in the tribe who asked that the name be dropped from usage. Wesley has been repeatedly told to stop using the title.
Most importantly, a chief has to be acknowledged by all other chiefs. Not only has Wesley not been accepted, all tribal chiefs have denounced him and demanded that he drop his fake title. He barred other chiefs from attending the party announcing himself as a chief and requested the RCMP attend because there might be violence. In a video posted on the Northern View website, he showed himself as armed in his “camp” on Lelu Island, proposed site of the LNG terminal, and threatened RCMP officers who attended.
Wesley has employed outsiders to join him in his camp, despite the fact that the real hereditary chiefs have stated that outsiders have no permission to live on Tsimshian territory. The question eventually arises how Wesley can afford to produce videos, hire a legal team and pay other mercenaries to join him. The truth is that he is secretly being paid by a large and wealthy American organization that is deliberately interfering in the Canadian economy to the huge detriment of the unemployed members of the Lax community who have voted in favour of accepting the LNG proposal. With Donald Trump in the White House, one wonders how much more American interference in the Canadian economy will be tolerated.
Finally, if the Supreme Court accepts the affidavit, the judge will have to consider and rule whether Tsimshian laws must be respected. Though never written down on paper, native laws and protocols have been in effect for 5,000 years for good reason. After all, even in small native villages you can’t marry your sister and you don’t suddenly become a hereditary chief just by throwing yourself a party. You also can’t denounce and reject native laws at the same time as embracing them when it’s convenient to do so.
Acceptance of native laws by the Supreme Court would have a profound effect on all future talks in Canada, whether between natives or between natives and outsiders. The Chilcotin Decision that accepted aboriginal ownership of traditional territories has already had a huge economic impact. Admitting that native laws are in fact laws that need to be respected in court will be just as historic.
Michael McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Postmedia publications.