By Monica Lamb-Yorski
The persistence of a small group of First Nations in the Cariboo-Chilcotin has paved the way for rights and title for all First Nations in Canada.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a unanimous precedent-setting decision in favour of the Xeni Gwet’in, of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, declaring Aboriginal title to approximately 1,700 square kilometres in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of B.C.
On a grander scale, many expect the case will have much farther reaching implications on how provincial and federal governments work with First Nations.
“It’s a game changer,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, during a national press conference held Thursday morning in Vancouver.
All six Tsilhqot’in chiefs were on hand for the historic decision, including Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William who is named in the case.
“I am elated,” William said.”We’re going to celebrate on July 4 in Xeni and take it from there.”
William, who has been a part of the rights and title case for the last 24 years, left the annual week-long Xeni Gwet’in Wagon Journey to the Williams Lake Stampede early Tuesday to attend the decision in Vancouver.
He expressed gratitude to the many First Nations and Non-First Nations people and organizations who intervened on the Tsilhqot’ins’ behalf over the years.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled aboriginal title should not be restricted to settlement sites and other places frequently occupied by semi-nomadic aboriginal people, but extended to areas used traditionally.
The fight for rights and title was born in 1983 out of a dispute between Xeni Gwet’in and a logging company who was set to log on the north end of the band’s trapline.
After the community successfully protected the trapline, the logging company then planned to log the Brittany Triangle, near Xeni Gwet’in, at which point members of the Xeni Gwet’in, with support of the Tsilhqot’in Nation blockaded.
The bid to stop the logging and protect the trapline was combined by the community’s legal team and became the historic William Rights and Title Case that it is today.
“Today I am thinking of the chiefs and elders who told me long ago the title case might have to go to the Supreme Court of Canada,” William said. “Many of those people who testified are no longer with us.”
The ruling is a gigantic win for the Tsilhqot’in and a new day for B.C. and Canada, said Anaham Chief Joe Alphonse, Tsilhqot’in National Government Tribal Chairman.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better decision,” he said. “No First Nation has ever got title anywhere in Canada.”
The ruling forces government and industry to deal with First Nations in a meaningful way, meaning they will need approval of First Nations to move forward, Alphonse said.
Yunesit’in (Stone Indian Band) Chief Russell Myers Ross said the decision is a relief and vindication the Tsilhqot’in have been on the right track.
“We still have to look through the details of the decision, but there are cases where industry and government will have to apply consent to a lot more of the laws that may be applicable to title but also re-looking at some of the infringements of Aboriginal rights,” Myers Ross said, adding it’s been a 150-year-old battle questioning who has jurisdiction and title over the land.
“We’re finally moving from the political environment of denial to acknowledgement of fact that we do have title and it means engagement will have to be a little bit different.”
William said economic development is a part of the future, but will have to be environmentally and economically sound. The decision provides certainty for all Canadians, he added.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said parties supporting the Tsilhqot’in in this case worked collectively to ensure the Supreme Court of Canada would understand that recognizing Indigenous Title and Rights does not diminish Canadian society but enriches it.
Monica Lamb-Yorski is a reporter for The Williams Lake Tribune