The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim that everything within 22,000 square miles, including the trees, is rightfully theirs. A lot of white people don’t agree.
For most of us, native land claims and logging issues fuel political and moral debates. To the people of the Gitksan reserve of Gitwangak and the white village of Kitawanga, they are bread- and-butter issues worth fighting for.
BLOCKADE takes place in the mountains and valleys of northern British Columbia, at the heart of the boldest aboriginal land claims case to challenge the white history of Canada. The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim that everything within 22,000 square miles, including the trees, is rightfully theirs. A lot of white people don’t agree.
The Hobenshields are the sons of white settlers. After 60 years of logging and living in the valley, they figure they are about as native to this part of the country as you can get.
Art Loring is a Gitksan, a wing chief of the Eagle clan. For 17 years he was a logger. Now he’s blockading the Hobenshield brothers’ logging crews from cutting trees on the Eagle’s hereditary lands.
Down river, a white couple are building their retirement home on the banks of the Skeena. Thirty members of the Frog clan confront the family, evicting them from what the Gitksan consider to be their traditional fishing site.
The environment is the final bargaining chip in this story, as BLOCKADE follows natives and whites fighting for the clearest manifestation of self-determination: control of the land.
In the final scene of BLOCKADE, the Gitksan try to force the government to the negotiating table. They blockade the economy of northern British Columbia – they blockade the Canadian National Railway, halting all shipments of coal, grain, and lumber to the coast.
The environment is the final bargaining chip in this story, as BLOCKADE follows natives and whites fighting for the clearest manifestation of self-determination: control of the land. This hardball, northern style, dramatically played out in logging towns and native villages across Canada, and in boardrooms and stock markets around the world.
The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en Court Case
The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en are two native peoples who have lived side by side in northern British Columbia since “time immemorial”. In 1984 they joined forces to take the governments of British Columbia and Canada to court. They say 22,000 square miles of land, its trees and rivers are stolen. It can be said that “Delgam Uukw versus the Attorney General” is the boldest land title action in the history of Canada because the chiefs are refusing to settle for anything less than outright control of the land itself.
The Chiefs argue that the land is theirs, to use and protect, because history says so – a history not written down in our books, but spoken oral histories. The court room has become a scene of a battle between two histories. Forty-two layers are fighting it out, representing the Gitksan, the Wet’suwet’en, the federal and provincial governments and an array of major industries operating within the disputed territories.
The Gitksan Hereditary System
In order to make BLOCKADE I found myself struggling to become familiar with three new languages: the legal jargon of the courts, the lingo of the forestry industry and most challenging of all,I had to develop a beginners understanding of the Gitskan language and the hereditary system which is the mainstay of Gitksan life. BLOCKADE takes place within the area claimed by the Gitksan Chiefs. Throughout the film there is reference to the four clans which make up the Gitksan people: the Eagles, Frogs, Fireweed (sometimes referred to as the Killer whale clan), and the Wolves. Each clan consists of “houses” which are made up on family members. Each house has a chief and supporting wing chiefs. The territories and history of the houses are passed down in oral histories called “ada’ox”. In contrast to this hereditary system is the ban council system which is a structure designed by the Department of Indian Affairs. Members of the band councils are elected from the native communities on reserves. Some band council members may also be hereditary chiefs.
It took 15 months to shoot BLOCKADE. Sometimes we had full film crew, sometimes it was just me and my Hi 8 video camera. We were never sure what was going to happen next, let alone where and at what time. It was a production manager’s nightmare. It was the cost of filming real life.
We started filming in July 1991. It was a fishing season for the Gitksan and logging season for the timber companies. We filmed the Eagle clan fishing on the Skeena fiver, trucker and Gitksan chief Chris Skulsh picking up his first load of logs of the day at 4am and the old growth forest becoming a clear-cut as faller Duncan Henderson cut his 500 trees in a day. Early one morning in the fall I got a call from the chiefs to say that the Frog Clan was preparing to confront a white couple building a house on a key Gitksan fishing site. I arrived at the site in time to shoot this complex story of the Frogs evicting the white family from what was to be their retirement home. In the winter we camped for three weeks at the Eagle clan’s blockade of the Hobenshield’s logging “show”, nursing our equipment through the snow and ice of subzero temperatures. We were still shooting in the fall of ’92 when we got another phone call. This time the Gitksan were blockading the Canadian National Railway.
CN Rail vs Canada Wild Productions
In December ’92, during out edit, BLOCKADE made national headlines when CN rail tried to have key scenes seized in an attempt to use our film footage as evidence in CN’s case against the Gitksan. We refused to turn over the footage.
Professionally and ethically we had little choice. If CN was successfully in seizing the footage, my work would have been used against the very people whose trust I had developed in order to make BLOCKADE in the first place. Beyond my own personal case, the court was in danger of setting a precedent that could seriously damage the ability of all independent filmmakers and journalists to continue their work. What kind of fair and incisive films can we make if people are too afraid of a court order to speak out? In the end the freedom of the media and, most importantly, the public, who rely on accurate and complete coverage, will be the victims.
We decided to take on the Canadian National railway, and we won. Substantial coverage in the national media and a general public outcry caused CN to back down.
BLOCKADE was finally completed, replete with the CN sequences, in September 1993
My home is in trouble. Two big issues are tearing apart the province of British Columbia, Canada: the debate over the logging of our forests, and fear and confusion surrounding native land claims. My instincts told me that the two issues were linked. In April 1991, I headed north to find out and to begin the research for BLOCKADE.
I’m white and I’m from the city. I knew I had to get out of Vancouver and into native and white communities which depend on the land for survival. I drove along what the northern BC road map calls Highway 16, through the logging town of Hazelton to the smaller white logging community of Kitwanga, and beside it, the Gitksan reserve of Gitwangak. The Gitskan and Wet’suwet’en people, this valley and everything within 22,000 square miles belongs to them. A lot of people, white people, don’t agree.
BLOCKADE is an exploration of this conflict between two histories and two cultures as we struggle for the clearest manifestation of self determination: control of the land.
Trust Equals Access
We were filming people deeply enmeshed in a profound struggle over who owns and controls the very land on which they live. It wasn’t easy.
Vernon Hobenshield sumed up what a lot of the white settlers thought when I first approached him. “I’ve only got one thing to say to ya, and that’s that I’m not going to say another word. That goes for my wife too.” Vernon had had it with camera crews “who come up here for three days and think they know what’s going on.” Five months later the Hobenshield family’s logging operations were blockaded by the Gitksan and we were still filming. The Hobenshields decided to trust us. They are now key “characters” in BLOCKADE.
It took months to gain the trust of several Gitksan people central to our story. The gitksan needed to see if this “amxsiwaa” (white) crew was prepared to slow down and listen. Art Loring is a Gitksan, an ex-logger and a lead figure in BLOCKADE. Art signed out legal relase form on the condition that I write in my own handwriting “this footage is to be used for this film only”. Then he made me sign it.