POLITICS

High court gives B.C. First Nation leverage for cultural, economic wish list

12/17/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST
VICTORIA - When the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a land title decision in favour of British Columbia's Tsilhqot'in Nation, aboriginal leaders celebrated saying it gives their group a solid legal weapon to remind governments and potential industrial developers of who holds the power.

It's a club the chiefs who make up the seven First Nations of the Tsilhqot'in say they plan to wield in the new year.

Last June, the unanimous decision from the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Tsilhqot'in title to more than 1,750 square kilometres of land in the remote Nemiah Valley in B.C.'s Chilcotin region. The ruling made them the first aboriginal band in Canada to win title to their territory.

Tsilhqot'in Chief Joe Alphonse said getting the federal government to address long-standing concerns about fisheries management and military presence on their territory are priorities of his people who are prepared to launch new legal actions if they don't receive attention and recognition from government.

"As First Nations people we've never had leverage and we have it now — it's going to take some getting use to," Alphonse said in an interview.

Roger William, who's also a Tsilhqot'in chief, said they have a vision that includes gaining more control of land-use issues, being on the ground floor of resource development proposals and catching up from almost 200 years of government policies that have held back his people.

William said he can't even imagine how much catching up will cost.

"That's going to be part of the process," he said. "We'll be negotiating how that's going to look in terms of being caught up. We're going to look at economics. We're going to look at the land, the title land, the whole territory."

He said catching up is tied to dark historical events, including the small pox epidemic of 1862 where 80 per cent of the Tsilhqot'in people died, the Chilcotin War where six Tsilhqot'in chiefs were hanged after 20 non-aboriginals died and the placement of their people on reserves and in residential schools.

William said the Tsilhqot'in people are flexible to change, but want to have a say in how that changes occurs.

"We're here because B.C.'s and Canada's policies and programs are not working,"

He said he wants the court victory to improve the circumstances not only for First Nations, but for the provincial and federal governments.

"If you recognize the first people of this country and get them caught up, I think it's going to be a better, stronger country."

William and Alphonse were in Ottawa earlier this month where they met with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt.

Alphonse said Valcourt told them he has at least 600 other aboriginal communities to deal with across Canada and was concerned about setting a precedent with them that may spread across the country.

But Alphonse said he reminded the minister that the court decision granting title over their land is a precedent that has spread across Canada.

"That's the club we've given First Nations," he said. "Hope. We've given them a sense that, yes, we do matter. We do have a say in your industry. Governments have to listen to us. We cannot be ignored any longer."

Alphonse said it will take businesses time to get used to the reality that they must actively consult First Nations about their development proposals, and the federal government needs to signal it will work with the Tsilhqot'in.

"We need to drag the federal government there and if the federal government absolutely refuses, then we have to come up with a way to get them there and that might include more legal action," he said. "They need to deal with us."

Valcourt could not be reached for comment.

Premier Christy Clark's Liberals heard the message the court delivered and moved to build a relationship with the Tsilhqot'in after battling the aboriginal group in court for 25 years.

Clark became the first B.C. premier to visit the Nemiah Valley, where she signed agreements with the Tsilhqot'in to negotiate development protocols. She also invited the chiefs to the legislature where the government exonerated six Tsilhqot'in chiefs who were hanged 150 years ago during what has been called the Chilcotin War of 1864.

"The Tsilhqot'in are proof that if we can come to agreements, First Nations do way better than if they end up stuck in court for 30 years," Clark said in a year end interview with The Canadian Press. "That's 30 years of lost opportunity."

Unlike other provinces, British Columbia did not sign treaties with most of its First Nations and only about a dozen agreements were signed before confederation, leaving aboriginal title unresolved.

The province launched a treaty process in the early 1990s. After more than two decades of negotiations, just four final treaty agreements have been signed among the province's more than 200 First Nations.

Hamar Foster, a University of Victoria law professor and aboriginal affairs expert, said the Tsilqot'in court ruling is hugely significant because for the first time in Canadian history the court has said a First Nation has title to a piece of land that its members have claimed as their own.

Until then, First Nations have never been able to prove that they established title to a territory, which now should be enough for governments to take notice, he said.

"We also have to accept today the Supreme Court of Canada said 'Let's face it, we're all in this together. We're all here to stay.' I think compromise and reconciliation are obviously what is necessary," said Foster.

"I think before that's going to happen, non-aboriginal people really have to have a better understanding of how we came to where we are," he said. "It would be wonderful if the Tsilhqot'in people, now that they've won this huge victory, turned around and are more magnanimous and fair to us than we were to them."

B.C. Opposition NDP Leader John Horgan said the Tsilhqot’in people have been patient and vigilant about their ties to the land and he expects them to stay on that path as they assert ownership.

"They are going to establish control over their land and get economic sovereignty for the first time in 150 years, and I think that’s good for everybody," he said. "What Roger (William) said to me was we don't want to scare our neighbours away. This is a harsh land and we welcome people to come and live and prosper in this harsh land."