BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. First Nation a step closer to managing title lands after historic court win

03/13/2015 02:07 EDT | Updated 05/13/2015 05:59 EDT
WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - A British Columbia First Nation is one step closer to exerting control over its territory after a historic Supreme Court of Canada decision, with the announcement of several agreements with the provincial government.

The high court's decision last year meant the Tsilhqot'in Nation became the first in Canada to win title to its land, located west of Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior.

The nation and the province issued a joint statement Friday saying they've had constructive talks in recent months on how to implement the ruling, resulting in several new interim deals.

"We've got a big vision we're all as a nation working towards, and how we get there is just a matter of process," Tsilhqot'in National Government vice chairman Roger William said in an interview. "The interim agreements are to get to the big vision."

The new deals involve issues including guide outfitters, emergency and wildfire response, road maintenance, and land access for private property owners.

The Tsilhqot'in has extended existing guide outfitter licences for one year, banning increases in guiding quotas in 2015 and allowing fees to be paid to the province and remitted to the nation.

The nation has not authorized other hunting activities within its lands.

William, who is also chief of the Xeni Gwet'in, one of six nations that make up the Tsilhqot'in, said the step was taken to provide "business certainty" for guide outfitters while the nation develops its own policies.

Steve Thomson, minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said the agreement represents a new approach to resource management with the nation.

The landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling gave the nation the right to exclusively use, occupy and economically benefit from the land, as well as the ability to determine how it is used.

In September, the Tsilhqot'in, Xeni Gwet'in and the province signed a letter of understanding in which they committed to create a framework for negotiations by March 31, 2015.

John Rustad, minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, said he expects the deadline will be met.

Talks are continuing between the B.C. government and the nation's leaders to hammer out permanent decisions on the issues the interim agreements address. But Rustad said the overall goal is reconciliation.

"These are interim steps to try and make sure that various things can flow and happen within that title territory, but also it's one of the steps toward reaching that long-term reconciliation," he said in an interview.

Last October, Premier Christy Clark apologized for the wrongful hanging of six Tsilhqot'in chiefs in 1864 and 1865.

Rustad said the ministry's working group has met with the nation multiple times.

"There's some frustration on both sides from time to time as you work through issues, and that's to be expected in any negotiation and relationship," he said.

"But I think at the core of it, there is a lot of optimism between the province and the Tsilhqot'in. We are going to be able to move forward with the relationship."

— By Laura Kane in Vancouver