[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
BC's native Indians are laying claim to every tree, every rock, every fish and every animal in the province. In an unprecedented set of demands, the province's reserve Indians are brandishing a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision they say grants them unfettered control of the entire BC land mass, including forests, mines and fish. The First Nations Summit laid out its list of demands to federal Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart and provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Cashore in a meeting Saturday. Neither minister would comment at the end of the meeting.
Peter Smith, manager of media relations for the provincial aboriginal affairs ministry, said Sunday the BC government is reviewing the demands "and will respond at some point but it's a bit early at this point to say when and how we will respond." Various native groups have staked their claims t portions of BC over the years. The borders of individual claims representing areas where native bands historically fished, hunted, gathered or traded - overlap, covering the entire province. But the natives have, until now, never demanded land or profit from land in private hands. And for the first time they are speaking in a united voice to demand, simply, legal title to BC.
The natives want an immediate freeze on development, anywhere in the province, of land or resources. The natives said they understand the enormity of their claims, and what they could mean to the financial lifeblood of BC. "It is not First Nations' intention to bankrupt the economy of the province," they said in a written statement. "Rather, it is our objective to assume our rightful place and to fully participate in the economy and the future of this province. As long as treaties are left unresolved there can be no legal or economic certainty in British Columbia," he said.
The natives say proof of aboriginal title lies in the ruling by the Supreme Court in a case called Delgamuukw, in which the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en Indians laid claim to a huge parcel of north-central BC. While the BC Supreme Court ruled against the natives, the Supreme Court of Canada determined the lower court erred in law by not allowing important evidence proving longstanding native habitation and unextinguished rights. The ruling agreed with the natives' position that they still have ownership of land they once controlled, including the right to have a veto in Crown land-use decisions.
Since the Dec. 11 ruling, all sides in the case have remained silent, figuring out what the binding decision means. The natives were first off the mark Saturday, softening their position of strength by offering a "cooling off period" to allow natives and government to fully consider the implications of Delgamuukw on the BC economy and people. But warned Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl'atzen Nation near Fort St. James, northwest of Prince George: "The BC and federal governments cannot continue with a business as usual approach."
To that end, the natives say anything they consider an "alienation of lands and resources" must be suspended until natives give informed consent. All actions, including licenses, leases and permits - would constitute "unlawful infringements" of native rights, they say. "Where First Nations consent to infringement, fair compensation must be provided," the natives said, adding that compensation could include "revenue sharing" such as stumpage rates, the amount of money the government charges forestry companies to harvest trees on Crown land.
And unlike the current treaty system in which bands are loaned millions of dollars to pay the legal bills of lawyers engaged in negotiations - with the understanding that the money will be repaid out of the final settlement - the natives now say they should receive outright cash contributions to meet their legal bills, and that all existing loans should be forgiven. If the governments do not accede to the demands, the natives say they will pursue their interests in the courts. Armed with the high court ruling as legal precedent, the natives say any court fight over the issue would surely result in their favor.
"The Supreme Court said aboriginal people have aboriginal title, which is a legal interest in land and a right to the land itself," the statement said. "The court has also acknowledged that aboriginal title is on equal legal footing with Crown title."
Full text of December 11, 1997 ruling: http://kafka.uvic.ca/~vipirg/SISIS/clark/97delrul.html Index of Delgamuukw/Gitksan articles, analysis, and commentary: http://kafka.uvic.ca/~vipirg/SISIS/clark/gitksan.html Background information on Delgamuukw case: http://kafka.uvic.ca/~vipirg/SISIS/clark/scchoax.html