Respected Nisga’a leader Joseph Gosnell has died at his home in Gitlaxt’aamiks in northern B.C. at the age of 84.
He passed away peacefully after a long battle with cancer, according to a release by the Nisga’a Lisims government.
Gosnell was the chief Nisga’a representative in negotiations with both the federal and provincial government that led to the 1998 signing of the Nisga’a Treaty, the first modern treaty in Canada.
Gosnell’s niece Laurie Mercer remembers her uncle’s kindness and compassion.
“He was such a down-to-earth man. He would always share stories. He was always welcoming … he was always home, he was so reliable,” she said.
“Not many men who have his level of stature and amount of respect would carry themselves in such a dignified and humble way,” her sister, Ginger Gosnell-Myers added.
“He never overstepped his power or used it in any advantageous way.”
Eva Clayton, Nisga’a Nation president, said Gosnell was a beacon of hope for people the world over seeking reconciliation.
“Today we have lost a giant,” she said.
“Through his wisdom, dignity and determination, Dr. Joseph Gosnell helped lead the Nisga’a people out of the Indian Act and into self-government.”
Clayton worked with Gosnell in various capacities over the years and said “his knowledge, his wisdom, his dignity and the respect he had not only for the land, but for the people” are what made him a successful leader.
“[He] carried himself with a quiet dignity,” Clayton told Radio West host Sarah Penton.
“He represented the Nisga’a Nation with great pride and respect.”
The Nisga’a Treaty came into effect in 2000 and gave the First Nation title to 2,019 square kilometres of land in the Nass Valley on B.C.’s North Coast.
It brought the Nisga’a out of the Indian Act, allowing the nation to run its own health services and schools. It also negotiated an allocation of salmon, moose and other wildlife.
“Joseph was a giant, a visionary who dedicated much of his life to bettering not only the lives of his people, but all Indigenous people,” said First Nations Summit member Cheryl Casimer.
“He negotiated the first modern treaty of our time and achieved what is the truest form of reconciliation.”
Casimer’s colleague, Lydia Hwitsum, called Gosnell’s commitment to ensuring Indigenous people own their land “unwavering.”
“Today, we all benefit from this strength and resilience,” Hwitsum said.
Other leadership roles, awards
Gosnell was named chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia in 2019.
When he spoke about the new role with his family, Mercer said he was eager to take on a position he didn’t have a lot of previous experience with.
“That was kind of the message he sent to us as a family, was not to be afraid to do different things,” she said.
Flags on campus were lowered to half-staff after the news of his death.
“The world has lost a tremendous leader, a man who repeatedly demonstrated a love for his community, his people, education and a commitment to enhancing the lives of others,” said UNBC interim president Dr. Geoffrey Payne.
In his youth, Gosnell attended residential school in Port Alberni. He worked as a commercial fisherman and carver.
He received four honorary doctorate of law degrees, from UNBC, Simon Fraser University, Royal Roads University and the Open Learning Agency.
Among his many honours, Gosnell was named to the Order of British Columbia in 1999, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 2001 and was made a Companion to the Order of Canada in 2006.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued a statement offering condolences to Gosnell’s loved ones and noting his myriad leadership roles.
“Joseph was an architect of the reclamation of Indigenous dignity and authority,” the statement reads.
“He pioneered a pathway to reconciliation and sovereignty that will be an everlasting and inspiring legacy for generations to come.”