"The Chief in Charge," Vancouver Sun, March 19, 2001
by Alex Rose

When it came time to take on his treaty critics, Joseph Gosnell emerged as a lethally effective practitioner of high-stakes political debate, which is not, of course, like other forms of debate. It is not primarily a dispassionate, logical argument in which ideas are pitted against each other to see which is most compelling.

It is debate as combat, in which the contest of ideas is subordinate to the struggle for dominance between the debaters. Victory requires knowing all the weaknesses of the opposition, and after a life of speech-making it's no surprise that Gosnell should excel at that. But it also requires a taste for face-to-face confrontation and a sense of high style and showmanship.

Here, too, once he rehearsed his lines and worked with his advisers to control his temper, Gosnell predictably excelled. As a result, the media and the general public perceived him as the face of the Nisga'a Treaty. If there was very little lightness, modesty, or self-awareness in the high-road persona Gosnell and his advisers crafted, his public presentation was consistently statesmanlike and regal.

And if at times this seemingly unknowable man displayed an exaggerated sense of his own entitlement and a monumental egotism, both are best viewed through the perspective of a traditional Nisga'a culture, where chiefs are expected to regally represent their people as a whole.

But he took his knocks, as well. By the time the agreement in principle (pre-cursor to the final treaty) was initialed on Aug. 4,1998, in Gitlakdamiks, he had become a significant national figure, whose image often flickered on the nightly news. And as the Gosnell star began to shine brightly, grumbling from the supporting cast could be heard offstage.

Sotto voce at first, this sniping grew louder as Gosnell received honorary degrees from universities, the Order of British Columbia and other prestigious humanitarian awards. His vulnerabilities were savoured by his detractors, though to his admirers, they made him seem more human than some of his contemporaries. In difficult tense situations, Gosnell would begin to hum loudly, perhaps a kind of whistling in the dark, unconscious compensation for a frightened little boy trapped in the gloom of a residential school.

And year after year, during open-mike session at Nisga'a annual convention, former Gingolx resident Mercy Thomas (now living in Cloverdale) would decry what she described as elitism and all-male cronyism of Gosnell and the Nisga'a leaders, complaining they had little contact with people in the Nass villages. Originally a supporter of the treaty process, she had turned dramatically against the deal and the negotiating team when it was announced that much of Gingolx traditional territory was not protected as "core land" within the treaty.

Since that day she has attacked the deal with the ferocity of the betrayed. And while she was indisputably right in saying that the negotiation schedules had turned Gosnell and his colleagues into absent and part-time fathers and residents, it is unfair to claim this was a lifestyle eh would willingly have chosen for himself. In fact, during the long years of negotiations, conversations with Gosnell would return again and again to a common motif: his thoughts of his family, friends and neighbours in his Nass River home.

However, Thomas was right about the absence of women from the negotiations. Many observers were struck by the mostly male dynamics of all three negotiating teams where, with the exception of several female lawyers, women worked only in supporting or secretarial roles. The Nisga'a team included only two women, both of them acting as secretaries.


It became increasingly evident that Gosnell was following no one's script but his own. Stubborn, willful on occasion, or filled with a righteous anger, he possessed a singular drive to bring a modern treaty home to his people.

However, he was always a courteous and active listener who respected the opinions of others - unless they presented an obstruction to the aspirations of his people or were guilty of human rights abuses.

This was demonstrated in Vancouver on Sunday night, Nov. 12,1997, when a crush of protesters, pressing against the barricade and a wall of police, taunted more than 800 guests entering the Hyatt Regency Hotel for a $1,000-a-plate dinner, a public relations initiative by the city for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum week. Nothing had been left to chance. Everyone had been briefed.

Inside the hotel the guest of honour, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, took his seat and prepared for the ritual offering of salmon, speeches and photo opportunities for a phalynx of international media. Everything went according to plan - that is, until Gosnell stepped up to the microphone.

Gosnell and other member of the tribal council had received formal invitations to attend this APEC dinner, and he was to appear on the dais with heads of state to offer a prayer honouring Jiang Zemin, the leader of one-quarter of the world's population. They had accepted at the urging of Adele Hurley, a Toronto-based lobbyist hired by the Nisga'a to shepherd the treaty through its "eastern campaign" and the debate on Parliament Hill.

In an earlier incarnation, Hurley had been instrumental in getting acid rain legislation passed in both Canada and the U. S. She was comfortable in the corridors of power and, with her network of contacts, was able to affect such invitations because she was raised in tony Oakville and counted among her clients and contacts some of eastern Canada's media and intellectual elite.

Attractive and elegantly dressed, she was also to prove a curiosity to the all-male platoon of Nisga'a negotiators. Late one October afternoon as the APEC summit approached, Gosnell and his team huddled around a table at the Chateau Granville Hotel as Hurley laid out the tactics for their presence at the dinner.

This was good news, she explained. The event would provide and ideal opportunity to raise the profile of the treaty by reminding influential decision-makers - public and private - that a global audience was witness to the way Canada treated its aboriginal peoples.

As history would later confirm, Gosnell was the only one on the dais that night who acknowledged and connected the APEC summit with the clamour for human rights going on outside. Everyone else pretended that they did not exist.

"I ask you to remember," he said in his prayer, "those people whose views I believe must be taken into consideration. " It was only a single sentence, but he left no doubt in anyone's mind that he was referring to the protesters outside, brandishing pictures of Jiang labelled "Keynote Despot" and demanding Tibetan and Taiwanese independence.

He had the courage to speak his mind, linking the plight of aboriginal people in Canada with human rights abuses around the world. His remarks contrasted with those of Power Corp. president Andre Desmarais, who praised President Jiang's "enlightened
leadership" of China, referring to him as "the scholarly statesman" who had met regularly with intellectuals during his tenure as mayor of Shanghai.

Gosnell had, of course, broken the rules of unspoken contract. Irritating foreign affairs officials, he had refused to the insider's game and stand at the podium as the token Indian. He also risked offending Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose support for the treaty would be sorely needed later in the House of Commons.

It was a daring display of the intellectual honesty and courage that had advanced his people so many times in the past, and in the months to come, as debate on the treaty intensified, Gosnell, by now the heart and soul of the campaign, would need all his skills as a states man in order to ratify an agreement that had become the crux of his intellectual life.


In November 1998, after being buoyed by a meeting with Chretien in Ottawa, Gosnell departed for an eight-day speaking tour of Europe. He was accompanied by Peter Baird, a communications consultant and me. Designed to capitalize on keen European interest as well as to set up the upcoming debate in the B. C. legislature, the trip was financed by the federal government and Milton K. Wong, the chairman of HSBC Asset Management Canada, who pressed a $5,000-cheque into my hand to pay for travel and accommodation. "I want Chief Gosnell to-be treated with the respect he deserves," Wong said.

After an overnight flight from Montreal to Frankfurt and a two-hour train ride to Bonn, we were met by Walter Larink, academic relations officer for the Canadian embassy. Larink then whisked us to the nearby University of Bonn, where Gosnell was introduced to embassy officials and to Lothear Honnighausen, head of the North American program at the university.

After a brief reception, Gosnell addressed a large crowd of graduate students, faculty and embassy officials, telling them the treaty was "a triumph for the Nisga'a people:"

Next morning, embassy officials arranged a tour of the German parliament, the Bundestag, before we headed back to the train station, then on to Frankfurt airport for a late-night flight to Vienna where, over the next two days, Gosnell would deliver a series of speeches and seminars, patiently answering questions from students. The keen level of interest shown by the European public and media confirmed that the Nisga'a Treaty had become international news to many Europeans fascinated by North American aboriginal art and culture.

As a first-time visitor to Europe, Gosnell was fascinated as well. In the Netherlands, Austria and later in London, he appeared overwhelmed by the crowds on the narrow cobbled streets and in the cafes and train stations. Halfway through the whirlwind tour, he appeared homesick and retired to his hotel room after the day's events to rest and phone his wife and family.

The railway line from Bonn to Frankfurt paralleled the Rhine River, and Gosnell settled in to stare out the window at the shifting riverscape with its barges and tour boats against a backdrop of carefully manicured vineyards and Gothic castles: "I knew something was missing here," he said with a chuckle, pointing out the window. "They've cut all the trees down. There are no forests left in Germany"

In Vienna, the Gosnell entourage stayed in a one-star hotel in the Jewish district of the old city, and the second night there we were awakened by the sound of smashing bottles and the loud, frightening voices of Austrian skinheads.

Next morning, climbing the stone steps near the main entrance of the hotel, I learned the reason for the chilling night noise: At the top of the steps was a small synagogue where, from the shadows, emerged two Austrian soldiers with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.

They explained they were assigned to protect the synagogue, and that during the night, a group of thugs and skinheads had driven in from the Austrian countryside to throw beer bottles and scream obscenities in their "celebration" of the 16th anniversary of Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass, the notorious night of Nazi violence against Jewish people in Germany on Nov. 9,1938.

The toll from that one night of violence in 1938 included 91 Jews killed, hundreds seriously injured, and thousands more humiliated and terrorized. About 7,500 Jewish businessmen were gutted and an estimated 177 synagogues were burned or otherwise demolished as police watched.

And while Austrian students and their professors sat enthralled as Gosnell explained how the treaty would protect his peoples' rights and traditional culture, they were also grappling with an upswell of intolerance from within their own society. "Yuppie fascist" Jorg Haider's Freedom party was emerging as Austria's second largest party, raising widespread fears that Austria was ready to embrace a refurbished right-wing extremism carrying many of the hallmarks of the old Nazi rhetoric.


Despite the frenetic schedule -12 venues in eight days - Gosnell revelled in his celebrity. In London, he was a late-night guest on a BBC-4 radio show that was beamed around the world. At Cambridge University he took the time to clip and save the newspaper accounts of his visits.

The tour was therapeutic for Gosnell, a respite from the endless negotiations back home. After the day's events, over a glass of wine and a plate of veal, he would grow reflective and share aspects of his personality, which he carefully compartmentalized during negotiations.

In the medieval university town of Leiden in Holland, he surprised Baird and me by describing the numbing intergenerational effects of the residential school system that took aboriginal children away from their parents. "We didn't get a. chance to learn how to be parents. We were children having children, and that has taken a devastating toll. "

He also described the sexual abuse he witnessed in the Nass Valley. Describing sexual abuse as "a cancer that never dies," he told us of a Salvation Army minister working in the tiny, isolated community of Gitwinksihlkw during the 1960s. Salvation Army Captain William Gareth Douglas would brazenly call young boys out of class for "medical exams" and "fishing trips;" then corner them in the school basement or in his private quarters.

When the children complained to their parents and elders about the abuse, they were dismissed or punished since Captain Douglas was, afterall a prominent and praiseworthy figure of village life. A devious sociopath who ingratiated himself to the Nisga'a community, Douglas wasn't punished until his victims launched a 1996 civil suit against the Salvation Army and the federal government that had established the school.

He was, convicted in 1998 on 12 criminal charges of sexual assault and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Financial details of a settlement have been kept confidential by agreement with the Salvation Army and the federal government. North Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Charles Brasfield later set up a program to help the victims and their families deal with post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, marital problems and substance abuse.

He reports that, while many of the men have responded well to therapy, some still find it difficult to build and maintain trusting relationships. Others continue to abuse drugs and alcohol, while a few still smoulder with rage.

At the final speech held at the Canadian embassy in London, Gosnell spoke with distinction and grace of the Nisga'a struggle. The keen interest of all his European audiences and the positive reception he received boosted his confidence and confirmed the treaty was international news.

On the plane back to Canada, we held a strategy session. In his speech to kick off debate over the treaty in the B. C. legislature, now just two weeks away, he wanted to exploit the stark contrast between his experience in Europe and the parochial tone of the debate back home.

By January 1999, however, attacks by politicians and the media had become so strident that I asked the Vancouver Sun op-ed page editor if they would accept an article by Gosnell addressing the criticisms. That article, which ran Jan. 29, pointed out that the treaty was not a result of a recent initiative; the Nisga'a had been seeking it since early in the 19th century. It also explained . . that it was not, as the critics were saying, a "Glen Clark" deal, but a tripartite deal that had begun with negotiations with the federal government in 1976, and that it was not intended as a "template" for all future treaties.

It also responded to the critics who said that the Nisga'a lands would be become an enclave to ghettoize the Nisga'a people and discussed the proposed land tenure and justice systems. It certainly did not quiet the critics, but it provided accurate information for the general public.


In January 1887 a delegation of chiefs from the Nisga’a and Tsimshian peoples of northern British Columbia, seeking restitution from a government that had stolen their lands without a treaty or compensation, arrived by steamship in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. They were met by Premier William Smithe, who refused them entry to the provincial legislature with a blunt rebuke. “When the white man first came among you,” he told them, “you were little better than wild beasts of the field. ”

The Nisga’a Treaty electrified the British Columbian and Canadian political landscapes like nothing else in recent times. Called “an absolutely shocking betrayal of democracy” by hotliner Rafe Mair and the “end of more than a century of degradation and despair” by Nisga’a leader Chief Joseph Gosnell, camps on either side of the issue were polarized – and many Canadians on both sides are still reeling from this hotly debated treaty.

Spirit Dance at Meziadin explores the issue of the Nisga’a Treaty in a concise, readable manner, highlighting with detail the history of the Nisga’a from pre-contact to present day. Journalist Alex Rose related the main tenets of the 1999 agreement, offering a thoroughly researched history of the Nisga’a journey, and an exhaustive and fair exploration of the issues that struck a controversial note throughout the country.

Rose makes excellent use of his great familiarity not only with the treaty process but with all the players who participated in this monumental campaign – particularly Chief Joseph Gosnell, who has emerged as one of the most respected First Nations leaders of the present day. “No one could be in a better position to write such a book…” said Gosnell. “Alex has worked closely with Nisga’a Tribal Council handling treaty-making for the last 11 years. ”

Spirit Dance at Meziadin is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the history of land claims in British Columbia and the tenets of the 1999 agreement. It also offers unprecedented insight into Nisga’a culture and the province’s colonial past.