06/26/2014 02:19 EDT | Updated 08/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Supreme Court To Rule On Landmark B.C. First Nation Land Claim


The Supreme Court of Canada will render a decision this morning in a complex appeal involving a British Columbia First Nation's claim to aboriginal title over a wide area it considers its traditional territory — a case observers say could have far-reaching effects on land claims in B.C. and across the country.

The case revolves around the Tsilhqot'in First Nation 's claim to aboriginal title over 440,000 hectares of land to the south and west of Williams Lake, B.C., in the province's Interior.

The B.C. Court of Appeal issued a ruling in 2012 that gave the Tsilhqot'in sweeping rights to hunt, trap and trade in its traditional territory. But the Appeal Court agreed with the federal and provincial governments that the Tsilhqot'in must identify specific sites where its people once lived, rather than asserting a claim over a broad area.

The Tsilhqot'in, a collection of six aboriginal bands that together include about 3,000 people, argue the court's decision failed to recognize the way its people had lived for centuries.

The court heard the Tsilhqot'in people were "semi-nomadic," with few permanent encampments, even though they saw the area as their own and protected it from outsiders.

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in, said at the time, it would be like arguing a country's borders only consist of areas where people physically live, while ignoring the areas in between.

25 years of legal battles

The case dates back to the early 1990s, when the Tsilhqot'in first began using the courts and a blockade to stop logging operations in the area, setting off a two-decade legal odyssey that has cost tens of millions of dollars.

Aboriginal law experts say it could answer fundamental questions about how to define and award aboriginal title —  a complicated term that grants natives exclusive control over their traditional lands, with certain limitations.

It could also have a significant impact on treaty negotiations in B.C. as well as in other parts of the country where land claims disputes still persist.

The B.C. and federal governments have both opposed the Tsilhqot'in's claims for aboriginal title.

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