HAZELTON, GITXSAN TERRITORIES -- The Supreme Court of Canada announced today that their judgment on the landmark Delgamuukw land title action by the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en people will be released on Dec. 11 at 9:45 a.m., EDT.
"Coming just before Christmas we are wondering whether the decision is going to be a lump of coal in a sock or something better," said Gitxsan chief treaty negotiator Mas Gak (Don Ryan). "Either way we are ready to continue to assert ownership, jurisdiction and self-government on our traditional territories."
The Delgamuukw case is the longest running land claims action in the Canadian courts. The appellants, 35 Gitxsan and 13 Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, first filed a statement of claim in the B.C. courts 13 years ago on Oct. 23, 1984.
The decision by the Supreme Court will be released six months after the appeal took place in Ottawa on June 16-17.
"Our hope is that the decision will help the province overcome their fears about talking about aboriginal rights," said Gitxsan treaty negotiator Yoobx (Elmer Derrick). "The province has created all sorts of obstacles for themselves whenever they are talking to aboriginal groups about land and resources. Maybe this decision will help them in that regard."
The Delgamuukw action is the pre-eminent First Nations land claim court case in Canada. It is unique in its scope in that the hereditary chiefs are arguing for ownership, jurisdiction and self-government over their entire 58,000 square kilometres of traditional territory rather than some specific aboriginal rights that are strictly linked to certain activities at designated sites.
The landmark decision on Dec. 11 will be used as a test against which all other First Nation land ownership and aboriginal title actions will be judged. -30-
For more information contact: Gitxsan Treaty Office (250) 842-2111, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct. 24, 1984 Thirty-five Gitxsan and 13 Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs file a statement of claim in the B.C. Supreme court in Smithers, B.C. stating that they have ownership, jurisdiction and self-government over their 58,000 square kilometres of traditional territory in the northwest part of the province.
May 11, 1987-June 30, 1990 The original trial takes place in courtrooms in Smithers and Vancouver, B.C. A unique feature is the Gitxsan and the Wet'suwet'en decision to have their hereditary chiefs and elders take the stand to testify in their language about their distinctive culture and relationship to the land.
March 8, 1991 Trial judge Allan McEachern releases his ruling dismissing most of the chiefs' claims and declaring any aboriginal rights held by the Gitxsan or Wet'suwet'en were extinguished by the colonial government of B.C. more than 100 years ago. The decision is widely criticized by First Nation leaders as being culturally biased and a U.N. report condemns McEachern's ruling as ethnocentric.
June 25, 1993 The B.C. Court of Appeal overturns the trial judge on extinguishment and clearly states consultation with the Gitxsan and the Wet'suwet'en has to take place before the government approves any activities that may affect Gitxsan or Wet'suwet'en aboriginal rights. On ownership and jurisdiction the Court of Appeal sides with the trial judge in a split (3-2) decision.
June 16-17, 1997 The Supreme Court of Canada hears the appeal of the Delgamuukw land title action. Based on their questions to lawyers for Gitxsan and the Wet'suwet'en, the seven judges appear to be trying to address the bigger question of aboriginal rights and title rather than site-specific rights.
Dec. 11, 1997 The Supreme Court of Canada will announce its decision on Delgamuukw in Ottawa.
GITXSAN TERRITORIES -- Today's decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on the appeal of the Delgamuukw court case is a major victory for all aboriginal people said chief negotiator Mas Gak (Don Ryan).
"This is a judgment the Gitxsan people have worked towards since the first European entered our traditional territory more than 130 years ago," said Mas Gak. "In this case the Supreme Court came down on the side of justice. We are extremely happy for all First Nations people in B.C., in Canada and around the world."
The judgment, released at 9:45 a.m. EDT by the Supreme Court, overturns all aspects of the B.C. Supreme Court decision of March 8, 1991, rendered by Judge Allan McEachern. It also reinforces the B.C. Court of Appeal decision of June 25, 1993, which struck down Judge McEachern's ruling on extinguishment of aboriginal rights.
"The Supreme Court found so much error in the original trial that they couldn't interpret Judge McEachern's findings," said Peter Grant, one of the lawyers for the Gitxsan. "That is why they ruled a new trial is necessary. That is a great victory because in other similar aboriginal rights cases the Supreme Court has refused to go back on the trial judge's findings."
Especially important to Gitxsan hereditary chiefs and elders was the Supreme Court's ruling that Judge McEachern never properly considered the oral testimony they gave. The original trial judge listened to the oral histories of the chiefs then declared that traditional Gitxsan life was "nasty, brutish and short."
"Today the Supreme Court was "nasty, brutish and short" to Judge McEachern's original decision," said Gitxsan litigation team coordinator Anuthlem buhn (Gordon Sebastian). "This changes everything regarding the land question. Any use of resources by outsiders on our traditional territories must now be justified on a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court said aboriginal title covers more than just what we do that is integral to our culture -- it means our rights are not frozen and have to include all modern uses of the land as well."
The decision throws into question the approach the B.C. government is taking in its treaty negotiation process with the Gitxsan and all other First Nations in the province. B.C. does not recognize aboriginal title and insists on a land selection model as the only solution to treaty negotiation. The land selection model means First Nations must chose a few pieces of their traditional territory over which they have the majority of control. The Gitxsan rejected the land selection model in favour of a joint jurisdictional approach with the provincial and federal governments. B.C. treaty negotiators refused to accept this alternative and walked away from the treaty table with the Gitxsan in February, 1996, choosing the Supreme Court route.
"We've never left the treaty table," said Mas Gak. "The province and Canada walked away and we are still awaiting their return. But they must return with a different policy on the land question. This ruling reinforces our view that there must be more than the land selection model on the table."
The decision by the Supreme Court brings an end to the Delgamuukw case which was the longest running aboriginal land title action in Canadian legal history. The initial statement of claim by Gitxsan hereditary chiefs for ownership and jurisdiction over 30,000 square kilometres of their traditional territories in northwest B.C. was filed on Oct. 24, 1984.
For more information contact:
Mas Gak (Don Ryan)