07/03/2014 05:11 EDT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Aboriginal Title Ruling Paves Way For Tahltan's Own Land Case


Our people have been saying it for more than 100 years, and now another First Nation more than 1,000 kilometres away from our territory has had the Supreme Court of Canada declare it: Aboriginal people can have title over the lands of their territories, and that title is a real and meaningful form of property ownership.

The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling last week was a major victory for the Tsihlqot'in, and for First Nations across the country.

It is the first time in history that a Canadian court has granted a declaration of aboriginal title. It has already been called the most significant legal breakthrough for First Nations in Canadian legal history, and even perhaps the most important judgement about indigenous peoples' rights anywhere in the world. I congratulate and am grateful to the Tsilhqot'in for their hard work and determination.

Like for so many First Nations, for the Tahltan people recognition of our aboriginal title is not about stopping development. But we have had enough of those that choose to try to use our lands and resources without listening to us, and last week's decision affirms the tools we have to do something about it. If you are going seek to use the lands and resources of our territory to which we have title for major economic development, you need our consent.

Tahltan traditional territory holds large amounts of natural resources, and we know there is an opportunity for everyone to benefit from them. Our people want to be able to live in our homelands and have jobs and build their lives there in a manner that reflects our culture, our values, and our way of life alongside contemporary realities, needs, and demands. This involves pursuing sustainable development in a manner that protects and respects our territory. The agreements we already have in place with companies like AltaGas show how we like to work, and demonstrate our consistent and coherent vision for sustainable development.

Yet without Tahltan consent, and against the clear wishes that our people have expressed, Fortune Minerals continues to press ahead with its plans to build the Arctos Anthracite open-pit coal mine on Mount Klappan in Tahltan territory. Mount Klappan is located in a critically important area that requires long-term management and protection to preserve cultural and ecological values for the Tahltan people. It is a traditional hunting ground and has significant cultural value. It also feeds three of the region's major salmon-bearing rivers: the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass.

Fortune's approach is so frustrating for me and for our people. We fought Shell for seven years in the same area until, eventually, they saw that we would not allow major natural resource development there. Our Elders did not get arrested fighting to protect the area in the past so that Fortune could dig up our mountain and damage this sacred area.

After a hard campaign by our people opposing the project through the summer of 2013, and with international support, we finally managed to put the project on pause. Yet still, through the winter, Fortune continued to try to promote Arctos Anthracite in our communities and more broadly. They also filed applications to do even more exploratory work than they were trying to advance last summer.

The province is currently considering those applications. This means there is still a chance that this summer will see a repeat of the conflict and tensions of last year, because Fortune and the province don't understand -- or choose to ignore -- that Mount Klappan is not an appropriate place for this kind of development.

The long-term protection of the Klappan, and stopping major resource development there, is in the interests of the Tahltan people, the First Nations downstream along the Nass, Skeena, and Stikine rivers, and the broader Canadian society. For anyone that doesn't believe me, I invite them to come up and see it for themselves.

The Tahltan people watched the Tsilhqot'in case with sympathy and with interest, knowing that its success could pave the way for Tahltan to launch our own title case to protect the area from destruction. We are now preparing that case.

Will our case ever make it court? I really hope not. We will continue to work hard for our people and hope both the province and Fortune see that their current approach is not working, and the current path they are on is the wrong one. The right path is to protect the Klappan for everyone so that these arguments do not continue for another 100 years.