A Haida clan in British Columbia has stripped two hereditary chiefs of their titles because they supported the construction of an Enbridge pipeline that the Nation fought in court.
The two chiefs signed a letter in support of the pipeline, and one of the chiefs told VICE News he met with the company and received per diems, but he believes the issue is being blown out of proportion. The chiefs have threatened a defamation suit for "lies" they say are being spread about them.
On Saturday, in front of 500 people, clan members in Old Massett held a ceremony marked with traditional dances in which the hereditary chiefs were stripped of their leadership, and matriarchs appointed new chiefs in their place. A ceremony like this one hasn't happened since smallpox struck Haida Gwaii, an archipelago along the coast of northern BC, in the 1800s.
Tensions ran high at the potlatch when a group of five clan members crashed the ceremony in opposition, according to clan spokesperson Ernest Swanson. But three RCMP officers guarded the doors, and a group of matriarchs stood between the potlatch crashers and ceremony organizer Chief Darin Swanson to protect him.
The two former chiefs who were stripped of their leadership, Carmen Goertzen of the Yahgu 7laanas Dadens Clan and Francis Ingram of the iits'aaw Yahgu 'laanaas and jaanas Clan, didn't attend the potlatch, saying they weren't invited.
As the heads of their clans, hereditary chiefs are appointed by family matriarchs and are expected to demonstrate and uphold the morals of their families, including peacefulness and modesty. But in this case, because they went against the wishes of their families, their actions are being taken as a betrayal, according to Ernest Swanson, Darin Swanson's nephew.
"We have values and morals and we want our chiefs to be prime examples of those values and morals," he said.
Ernest Swanson said their leadership was revoked because they received money from Enbridge and signed a letter in support of the company's Northern Gateway pipeline, which the Haida Nation has long opposed because, among other reasons, the influx of tanker traffic would increase the risk of oil spills.
The Haida Nation celebrated a victory in late June when a court overturned the pipeline's approval, finding the federal government failed to fully consult seven First Nations that would be directly affected if the project went through.
In a June 27 letter to the National Energy Board (NEB), Canada's pipeline regulator, a coalition of eight hereditary chiefs, including Goertzen and Ingram, wrote: "We support Northern Gateway's requested extension for the following reasons: it is in Canada, Alberta and British Columbia's collective best interest; we require more time to engage with Northern Gateway, in light of significant engagement progress made over the course of the past year; [and] not granting the extension would place in jeopardy the substantive engagement progress made in Coastal British Columbia over the course of the past year."
The NEB didn't grant the extension, and Enbridge has no permit to build the pipeline.
Over the phone on Friday, Ingram denied that he ever asked for an extension for Enbridge, although VICE News pointed out that his signature appears on the letter.
Ingram also denied receiving any money from Enbridge. However, Goertzen said Enbridge had paid the chiefs per diems in exchange for meeting with Enbridge.
"To meet with them, we've been paid per diems, and we've had a few meetings, not even four days," he told VICE News. But he said members of his clan are "blowing stuff out of proportion."
"That is why there have been many allegations made against us, and if they were true, we wouldn't be litigating, right?" the well-known Haida artist and jeweler said.
"We just want some resolution to this because we have to be united as a people, as a culture," Goertzen said. He said he hasn't brought any disrespect to his clan.
The potlatch comes at a time when the Haida Nation—struck by the decline of the fishing industry—is struggling to build a better economic future for itself, Swanson explained.
Ingram, who is 73 and was a crab fisherman for much of his life until he retired, echoed this sentiment. "I lived a good life over that," he said of the industry that still employs his son.
Now, Haida fishermen are only hauling in 1,000 crabs a week when they used to get 2,000 in one day, he explained. "There were only seven crab boats when I fished, now there are 60-something, mostly Vietnamese," he said.
"Overfishing, overfishing, they never shut it down," he said of the industry as a whole.
According to Ingram, it's a similar story for the logging industry. "Instead of having the Natives working in the logging camps there, they got white guys from Vancouver Island coming up with their logging machinery doing all the logging and we're not getting a penny out of it. It's our logs, our trees, everything," he said.
That's tanking the economic opportunities for Haida members, especially in Old Massett, where Saturday's potlatch happened, he said.
The clan conflict is also taking place as the Haida Nation tries to rebuild its traditions that were lost when Canada's residential schools stripped the First Nation and others across the country of their traditions. The stripping of the chiefs' authority is meant to reassert those traditions, Swanson explained.
"This is something that's been in resurgence, too, you know. We're still very much trying to create that cultural continuity that we're missing. We're rebuilding right now.
"Due to colonization and cultural genocide and residential schools, we've missed a generation of teachings being handed down, which has been a great challenge for us to overcome together. And so we're moving forward in the best way we know how."