This week, a giant has fallen.
Joseph Arthur Gosnell Sr., the former president of the Nisga'a Nation and the seventh chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia, died at the age of 84 on August 18.
Gosnell was a hereditary chief of the Laxsgiik (Eagle) Clan, carrying the name Sim'oogit Hleek.
He led Nisga'a negotiations for the first modern treaty between a B.C. First Nation, B.C., and Canada, which was reached in 1998.
It included a payment of $196.1 million and control over 2,019 square kilometres of land. In addition, the treaty granted an annual allocation of salmon, as well as entitlements to harvest other fish.
"Joseph was an architect of the reclamation of Indigenous dignity and authority; he pioneered a pathway to reconciliation and sovereignty that will be an everlasting and inspiring legacy for generations to come," the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said in a statement.
"Garnering numerous honours over the course of his career, including the Order of British Columbia, Dr. Joseph Gosnell will be remembered as a titan and champion of Indigenous rights—a man who was a pillar of strength and wisdom for his Nation and Indigenous peoples around the world."
During the 1990s, Gosnell remained remarkably placid in the face of hostility to even the notion of a B.C. First Nation negotiating a treaty.
His calm and friendly demeanour, not to mention his dignity, won over many British Columbians. This came despite efforts of those, like former assistant deputy attorney general Mel Smith, who disputed that Aboriginal title even existed after B.C. joined Confederation in 1871.
That issue was settled once and for all by the Delgamuukw decision in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997. Not long afterward, the Nisga'a finally negotiated self-government. With that came control over their schools and funding to deliver health and social services in their territory.
The treaty also faced opposition within the Indigenous community. The Gitanyow Nation launched a court challenge, arguing that its overlapping claim was undermined.
Others, such as Mohawk intellectual Russ Diabo, have argued that the Nisga'a settled for a form of self-government that fell short of the powers that First Nations should be aiming for. For example, the Nisga'a cannot write their own Criminal Code or control immigration into their territory.
But Gosnell soldiered on, achieving what was politically feasible, and making history in the process. And what's most remarkable is he accomplished this when the Reform Party of Canada was vilifying his efforts to achieve true reconciliation.
The long-time former Reform MP for Skeena, Mike Scott, claimed that the treaty was "legislated segregation". Scott's leader at the time, Preston Manning, also fought against it.
And B.C. Liberals, then led by Gordon Campbell, tried unsuccessfully to get the treaty overturned in court.
Nowadays in the wake of Gosnell's death, the political establishment is lauding the former Nisga'a Nation president as a true visionary. But that certainly wasn't how his efforts were viewed in the 1990s by those on the right side of the political spectrum.
Nisga's fight for justice lasted more than a century
It's worth noting that the Nisga'a people never accepted the theft of their land when B.C. asserted ownership in the 19th century. They kept up the fight even after the federal government introduced the Indian Act to confine them on reserves and outlawed their cultural practices.
The Nisga'a created their first land committee in 1890.
"However, from 1927 to 1951, the Nisga'a could not pursue our goal for a treaty because Canadian laws made it illegal for Indians to raise money to advance land claims," the Nisga'a Lisims government states on its website. "After these laws were repealed in 1951 the Nisga'a Land Committee re-established itself as the Nisga'a Tribal Council in 1955."
In 1973, the landmark Calder decision in the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal title to land. That set the stage for many other decisions to follow—Sparrow, Van der Peet, Delgamuukw, Haida Nation, and Tsilhqot'in, to name five—that clarified the extent of Indigenous rights and title, as well as governments' duties to consult.
The Calder decision was named after Nisga'a hereditary chief Frank Calder, the first Indigenous person elected to the B.C. legislature.
The second Indigenous MLA in B.C., Larry Guno, was also Nisga'a. He played a critical role in educating his NDP caucus members about Indigenous rights.
That helped lay the groundwork for the party—under the leadership of Mike Harcourt and then Glen Clark—to invest so much political capital in the Nisga'a treaty.
B.C.'s third Nisga'a MLA is Melanie Mark Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak, minister of advanced education in the current NDP government.
“Dr. Gosnell attended St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, the same school my late grandmother, Thelma Mark, attended," Mark said in a statement this week. "Dr. Gosnell believed strongly in the power of education. In his own words, 'The best thing I can do is encourage young men, women, no matter who they are, to take advantage of education.'
“Dr. Gosnell was always ready to serve the community. I was thrilled when he was named chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia in 2019.
“My heartfelt condolences to Dr. Gosnell’s wife, Audrey Adele, their seven children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Today, we have lost a briefcase warrior.”
Gosnell helped set the table for the Indigenous resurgence that we're witnessing today across Canada. He was a transformative figure in B.C. history. And inspired by his leadership, a generation of Nisga'a people are not only charting a course for their own people in the Nass Valley, they're having a major impact on Vancouver and the rest of the province as well.
That's apparent in the roles that Nisga'a people have played in many organizations, including the Western Aboriginal Harm Reducation Society, Vancouver school board, City of Vancouver, Urban Native Youth Association, Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, and, yes, the Ministry of Advanced Education.
"My uncle Joe Gosnell has been a critical guide in my life," tweeted Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Nisga'a-Kwakwaka'wakw Indigenous Fellow with SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
"When I graduated high school his advice was be a sponge & soak up as much knowledge as I can; see the world; always side with our people & Indigenous people; never accept crumbs; live strong & proud. Our loss is immense."