One hundred and fifty years ago, five leaders of the indigenous Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia were lured into peace talks with the British Crown, and then promptly arrested and hanged.
That brought to an end the Chilcotin War of 1864, which had broken out in response to a flood of gold-rush settlers in the Canadian west. Like most other native nations in British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) did not surrender their land under a treaty, but were slowly marginalized under the pressure of settlement and development. Their lands were exploited for gold, minerals and timber, and they were recognized as having title to only a small fraction of their historical range.
But two weeks ago, much of that changed overnight. In a 25-year-old legal case, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 26th in favor of the Chilcotin Nation’s claim to some 675 square miles of land that had previously been contested. The court found that aboriginal title does not just apply to land where First Nations live, but to the lands they have historically used for hunting, trapping and fishing.
The day after the decision was handed down, I arrived in northern Alberta for a gathering of First Nations leaders and their friends, in the heart of tar sands mining country. And despite the flood of terrible news facing native people from the tar sands pollution, the mood that day was happy – even jubilant.
That’s because the Chilcotin decision for the first time provides a clear basis to establish First Nations’ title to un-surrendered lands, and strengthens the hand of indigenous people in dealing with companies seeking to exploit mining, logging and fossil fuel development on those lands.
“This decision . . . will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in B.C. and throughout the rest of the country where there is unextinguished aboriginal title,” said First Nations Regional Chief of British Columbia Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Others would go even further, claiming that it gives indigenous people “a veto” over resource development proposals on their now-expanded lands. And while that’s probably an overstatement, the court’s ruling certainly increases the amount of Canadian land over which the First Nations will now exercise significant control. Now, timber companies, miners, and pipeline operators will have to solicit consent from indigenous peoples before pushing ahead.
Ah, pipeline operators. Now there’s a timely topic. Continue reading