The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Doing the right thing

by Tricia Dower

As a descendant of colonizers, I’m glad the First Nations in BC is finally getting a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It eases my guilt.

I attended a celebration two weeks ago of a ruling from BC Supreme Court Justice David Vickers that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation collectively holds aboriginal title to some 200,000 of the 440,000 hectares that make up their traditional territory in BC’s central interior. As one of the chiefs said, “We’ve been upgraded from occupant to owner. “

It took them 18 years of legal action, including a 339-day trial, to get that ruling and it doesn’t mean they’ll get the land. They still have to negotiate. Chief Roger William, plaintiff in the court case, told us he met with BC Premier Gordon Campbell and suggested that both sides declare a four month truce on further legal action to give the government time to “do the right thing.”

On the same day, chiefs from the Maa-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island’s west coast signed a treaty giving them about $100 million in cash and just under 25,000 hectares of settlement land. Not wanting to spend 18 years in court, the Maa-nulth went the treaty route. As far as self-governance is concerned, they receive the same status as a municipality, not a separate nation, something the Tsilhqot’in don’t want to settle for.

Moving to BC has raised my awareness of native land issues. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why so many public gatherings in Victoria open with “Let us thank the Songhees People on whose land we stand.” I had lived only in Ontario where almost all the land is covered by treaty agreements. Land claims there usually concern the meaning of the original agreements, the extent to which treaty commitments have been honoured and how to provide redress in cases where commitments were breached. In BC, on the other hand, 97% of BC land reportedly is unceded and untreatied. You probably already know that.

What I really want to say is what’s happening in BC gives me a smidgen of optimism for the future of some of the natural world. Pushed into the role of defenders of the land — most Tsilhqot’in, for example, make their living by hunting, trapping and fishing — First Nations people are seen as more sensitive to the environment. If they hadn’t been colonized, would they have been just as rapacious as we are? We’ll never know. What we do know is this: the Vickers ruling imposes upon the government a greater obligation, from a public opinion point of view, to deal fairly with First Nations.

The ruling says land use decisions about such areas as forestry and mining cannot proceed without consultation and agreement from First Nations communities. And that aboriginal rights include maintaining the habitat for the wildlife they depend on. If we clear-cut, there are no animals left to trap. Speaking at the celebration, Tsilhqot’in legal advisor Jack Woodward said the decision has implications for First Nations people all across Canada and could protect the entire boreal forest of Canada — one of the three largest ‘frontier forests’ remaining on the planet. (The other two are in Russia and Brazil.)

It would be wonderful if the country that voted against aboriginal rights in the U.N. declared a moratorium on exploiting aboriginal land. Do you believe in Tinker Bell?

Left to right, Chief Roger William, Chief Ervin Charleyboy and Chief Ivor Myers of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation at the celebration of a landmark ruling in their favour. Chief Charleyboy’s comment on First Nations having to get justice from Canadian lawyers and judges: “It’s like asking a thief to make a judgment on his own theft.” (Photo by Tim Linday)


Blogger Chumplet said...

Great news! Thanks for explaining it so clearly. Sometimes aboriginal issues can be fuzzy and complicated -- we never know where the original discussions started or what the real issues are. All we hear about are confrontational roadblocks.

Thu Dec 06, 01:29:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Chumplet. I will admit it was easier to be uninformed and uninvolved in Ontario. Here, the issues are relevant to everyone, especially property owners. Do you truly own the land your house sits on? It's my understanding that businesses are reluctant to locate here as long as property rights and availability of resources are, to borrow your words, "fuzzy and complicated."

Thu Dec 06, 02:11:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Great post, Tricia! Its shameful how long these land claim problems are taking.

Thu Dec 06, 03:40:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Andrew. You're right about the length of time these actions are taking. And the cost. $30 million for the Tsilhqot’in action, with the judge saying the government should pick up the cost.

Thu Dec 06, 11:13:00 pm GMT-5  

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