11/07/2013 10:30 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Key B.C. aboriginal land claim case starts before Supreme Court

Members of a British Columbia First Nation are at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa today, to hear a case that is expected to have far-reaching effects on aboriginal title in Canada.

The Supreme Court has been asked to determine if the Tsilhqot'in First Nation holds title to land in the Chilcotin region in B.C.'s Interior.

B.C.'s Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says many of the First Nation's leaders travelled to Ottawa for the first time for the hearing.

"Many of the elders have only been as far as Victoria, B.C. So it was an incredible journey across Canada," says Phillip.

Recognizing ownership is key to a stable future for First Nations, he says.

"The continued denial on the part of Canada and British Columbia with respect to our aboriginal title interests has created great economic uncertainty across this country."

"The only answer with respect to this decision is a recognition of genuine aboriginal title interests, which will lay the foundation for genuine reconciliation between aboriginal title interests, and other Crown interests."

Logging rights triggered legal battle

The case began more than two decades ago, when the provincial government granted logging rights within the XeniGwet'in nation's traditional territory, which is near Williams Lake.

In 2002, the XeniGwet'in and the larger Tsilhqot'in National Government went to court to prove aboriginal title to 4,400 square kilometres in the Chilko Lake area in the province's Interior.

The marathon trial with nearly 30 lawyers sat for 339 days over five years. Finally, in 2007, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the band had aboriginal rights throughout the claimed area, including the right to hunt, trap and earn a moderate living from it.

The judge also found the band had aboriginal title to about 40 per cent of the claimed land, but said he could not grant a declaration of aboriginal title because the claim was pursued as all or nothing.

The First Nation, the province and the federal government all appealed, but the B.C. Appeal Court dismissed their actions. The band then sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which announced earlier this year it would hear the case.

Numerous stakeholders on both sides are expected to make arguments in this case, including provinces like Manitoba, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the Assembly of First Nations and B.C.'s First Nations Summit.

When it hands down its decision, the Supreme Court is expected to set out just how aboriginal land title can be established.