By Sage Birchwater —
It’s hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes, but in a decade or two, or maybe some time in the next century, we’ll look back on 2014 as the year Canada finally came of age. The year Canada finally did the right thing by First Nations.
The June 26, 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision of Canada vs Roger William, finally recognized the legitimacy of Aboriginal people owning title to their ancestral lands outside the postage stamp reserve allotments.
The unanimous ruling by eight Supreme Court judges granting title to 1,700 square kilometres of land to the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation of Nemiah Valley in British Columbia’s interior, was a game-changer. It sent the message for the first time in Canada’s 147-year history that Aboriginal people are equal citizens under the law.
The ruling was a great victory for the Xeni Gwet’in and Aboriginal people everywhere. But it was also a great victory for all Canadians.
For nearly a century and a half, Canada has held a paternalistic stick over the heads of indigenous people. Tiny allotments of reserve lands created in the late 1800s and early 1900s as refuges for First Nations against the onslaught of colonization and settlement, weren’t even owned by the Aboriginal inhabitants. They were held in trust by the federal government and considered property of the Crown.
These reserves were created as safe places for Aboriginal people to practice the traditions of their culture. But that even came with strings attached. Potlatches were forbidden and permission was needed from the federal government for any significant development projects.
It’s easy to understand the rationale for the reserve system. Aboriginal people practicing a subsistence way of life were easy pickings for unscrupulous whiskey traders all too eager to take everything they had. As more and more settlers arrived, land for Aboriginal survival was becoming more and more scarce. So something had to be done.
Four decades ago I was part of the back-to-the-land generation seeking a simpler life closer to nature. We saw Aboriginal people as our mentors.
One day I met Andy Chelsea, chief of Esket First Nation at Alkali Lake. He was in the process of leading his people on a pathway to sobriety. Because of the amount of booze consumed there, Alkali Lake was known as Alcohol Lake, and nearly every adult on the reserve was an alcoholic. Then Andy and his wife Phyllis decided to do something about it.
I remember telling Andy how much I envied his upbringing on the land, growing up with horses, living in log cabins, and burning firewood to stay warm. I was shocked at his response. “I want the nice things in life you grew up with,” he told me. “A new pickup, a modern home with electricity and running water, and an education for my children.”
So there we were at a crossroads. Ships passing in the night heading in opposite directions.
A dozen years later I got invited by Ulkatcho Chief Jimmy Stillas to write a series of books documenting the culture and history of his people around Anahim Lake. Most of the elders in his community had not gone to school and had difficulty reading or writing English. Jimmy wanted a mechanism to pass down their stories and traditions to the generations that hadn’t been born yet.
While researching the books, it became very apparent that the Ulkatcho people still utilized the land in much the same way their ancestors had, moving with the seasons over a vast landscape. Major development hadn’t occurred there yet, so they were able to occupy their traditional lands beyond the borders of the little postage stamp reserves that had been allotted to them.
One of our books, Ulkatcho Stories of the Grease Trail, talked about the route taken by Sir Alexander Mackenzie on his cross-Canada venture in 1793. The elders were sore that the name of their traditional grease trail that Mackenzie had followed had been given to him. They felt there was insufficient recognition of their ownership of the trail and the territory on which it lay.
As an outsider it was easy to see the gap between the Canadian justice system and the expectations of the Ulkatcho people that their unceded territory was theirs.
It was the perfect opportunity for the Canadian government to do things differently than the systemic racism that has governed Aboriginal policy since confederation.
The June 26 Supreme Court ruling wasn’t just the end of a two-decade-long struggle by Roger William and the Xeni Gwet’in people. Rather, it marks the beginning of something far greater. It opens the door for other Aboriginal groups to declare sovereignty to their lands.
The Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) didn’t waste any time. Three months after the decision, the TNG announced the formation of the Dasiqox Tribal Park on the shore of Teztan Biny (Fish Lake). A ceremonial totem was erected there, carved, and donated by renowned Nuu-chah-nulth master carver Tim Paul.
The site chosen for the park announcement was significant. It is where Taseko Mines Ltd. proposed a massive copper and gold mine that the Tsilhqot’in people vehemently opposed. The federal environmental review process rejected the mine proposal twice, but the company continues to persist anyway by taking the review panel and the federal government to court—still trying to sidestep informed prior consent by the Tsilhqot’in people.
The Supreme Court ruling sends the message that Aboriginal values do matter. One strategy behind Dasiqox Tribal Park is to ensure that Tsilhqot’in values are entrenched in any land use and management activity that occurs outside recognized title lands.
“The park is an initiative that invites all parties to look at ways of working together creatively,” says Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the TNG. “But being mindful that Tsilhqot’in values ought to be respected first and foremost.”
The concept of a tribal park is still in its formative stages. Many details need to be resolved around what activities would be allowed there.
Dasiqox Tribal Park fills in the blank space between six protected areas in the territory shared by the Xeni Gwet’in and Yuniset’in Tsilhqo’tin communities. Its aim is to protect the ecosystem from the adverse effects of industrial clearcutting and mining, but not eliminate economic activity altogether.
It includes three main features: ecosystem protection, support for sustainable livelihoods, and cultural revitalization. For further information check out dasiqox.org.
The implications of the June 26 Supreme Court decision have spilled beyond Tsilhqot’in boundaries. It has spurred an attitude change in government-to-government relations—a respect that didn’t exist before.
When the August 4 breach occurred at Mount Polley mine, Premier Christy Clark entered into serious dialogue with the Xatsu’ll First Nation on assessing the cause of the breach and considering new mining policy offered by the Northern Secwepemc Tribal Council.
It helps that the Xatsu’ll and the tribal council were ready.
Empowering First Nations empowers Canada as a whole. It increases the possibility of “best practices” in government policy because of Aboriginal understanding and respect for the land base. And it’s a step toward eliminating the paternalistic relationship between Canada and First Nations. Only good will come from that.
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.