03/04/2014 07:00 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Tribunal sides with B.C. First Nation in historic land-claims fight

VANCOUVER - It may have taken more than 150 years, but justice over a long-standing land claim finally arrived for a First Nation in British Columbia's Interior in a ruling the elected chief says left her "literally shaking."

An independent, federal tribunal, known as the Specific Claims Tribunal, ruled Friday that the colony of British Columbia failed to protect the Williams Lake Indian Band's land from settlement during the 19th century and recover it in cases where it was "unlawfully pre-empted."

Referred to as the "Village Lands," the band's claim encompasses the present-day downtown core of Williams Lake, B.C., its stampede grounds, as well as areas known as Williams Creek and Scout Island.

"I was extremely elated, I was so taken aback by it, I was literally shaking, I was just so honoured that, you know, finally we've come to this decision," said Chief Ann Louie.

After all, said Louie, the band has been arguing for more a century and a half that it was pushed off its land, and many of those who have fought for the claim have died.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada was unable to respond with its reaction by publication.

The band's claim dates back to 1861, when between July and November, settlers secured the lands in what was then a British colony. The tribunal's ruling states available evidence does not establish precisely the size of the Village Lands.

The federal government assumed responsibility for the issue once B.C. joined confederation in 1871.

In his ruling, Judge Harry Slade said the colony failed to meet the "applicable standard" in honouring its obligations to the First Nation.

"The Crown did not, in the case of the Williams Lake Indians, take the most basic steps required to protect their settlement lands from pre-emption or to set aside pre-emptions made contrary to law," he wrote.

"The Crown was bound as a fiduciary to put the Indian interest in their settlement lands ahead of the newcomers in acquiring rights of occupation to Crown land. It failed to meet the duty."

Louie said the federal government has until March 31 to review the claim and decide whether it will appeal.

If the government does not appeal, then the second phase of the claim can begin, which is negotiations or hearings to determine the final settlement for the properties, she added.

"It's time for the federal government to do the honourable thing and settle this on the path to reconciliation," said Louie. "You know, it's very expensive for the taxpayers to continue going down this road."

The tribunal was created in 2008 and consists of superior court judges who can make binding decisions on land clams and compensation up to a maximum of $150 million per claim.