Xeni Gwet'in Chief Roger William

Aboriginal title ‘a first step,’ UBCM told

Landmark Tsilhqot'in decision will be the first of many declarations, lawyer tells local government representatives

WHISTLER – Canada’s first declaration of aboriginal title is the first of many to come across B.C. and it should be viewed as a step forward for relations with the province and local governments, delegates to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention were told Tuesday.

A standing-room-only crowd of local politicians heard a summary of the June decision of the Supreme Court of Canada declaring title to 1,700 square kilometres of the Nemiah Valley near Williams Lake. The title area is no longer considered Crown land.

Alexis Creek First Nation Chief Percy Guichon called the landmark Tsilhqot’in Nation case “the first step to reconciliation” between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

“For far too long, provincial and federal governments have somehow minimized First Nations’ rights,” Guichon told delegates. “It only has brought on negatives, such as legislating us to poverty on these small areas they call reserves.”

Vancouver lawyer Gregg Cockrill said the declaration of title on Tsilhqot’in lands may be the most significant court decision in B.C. history, and there will be many more to come, either by court rulings or treaties that define areas of aboriginal title.

For areas not subject to title declarations, local governments do not have the same legal obligation to consult First Nations as the federal and provincial governments do, Cockrill said.

Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William, whose Tsilhqot’in community was the subject of the landmark case, said the next step is to build a positive relationship with the B.C. government. William praised Premier Christy Clark’s decision to be the first B.C. premier to visit his territory, and to agree to return in October to mark the 150th anniversary of the hanging of Tsilhqot’in chiefs in Quesnel during colonial times.

William, also an area director of the Cariboo Regional District, said the next step is to develop Tsilhqot’in laws to govern resource development.

In the wake of the federal government’s rejection of a gold mine project in the region, the Tsilhqot’in Nation has developed a draft mining policy. Guichon said the draft has been presented to governments and industry for their input, and the goal is to work cooperatively on resource development as has been done in the forest industry in the region.