The Hammer: First Nations’ title to the land

Before there was European contact within BC, (Alexander MacKenzie had yet to traverse across the landscape – 1792), the King of England passed a Royal Proclamation in 1763 regarding aboriginal rights in his new territory that would eventually become Canada. Basically this proclamation states that the aboriginal people hold “title” to the land unless it is expressly ceded in a treaty. (Royal Proclamation-1763)

Since then, most provinces have signed such treaties, except in BC. The First Governor, James Douglas ignored this process and each successor deliberately refused to negotiate and develop treaties. The Chiefs of several nations in BC even asked the government of that time to negotiate treaties, but were rebuffed.  The arrogant attitudes of the colonial government (to not so long ago) towards fair treaties has left BC with few treaties in place. The  aboriginal people, therefore, have not ceded title to their land.

Then, for over 150 years, a dark history developed in Canada resulting from the Federal and Provincial laws and policies that promoted systematic discrimination against the aboriginal people. The Federal government openly tried to erase the aboriginal cultural from the land. Some call it attempted genocide. The First Nations people, however, endured and survived the abuses. They persevered and have rebounded with an engaged youth and a renewed cultural appreciation that we now embrace.

Until today, the definition of “title” and what that means was not defined in court.  A few landmark cases have upheld this concept, most notably the Delgamuukw case 1997, that reaffirmed aboriginal right to land (Overview: aboriginal rights to land), (Legal : aboriginal rights to land & limitations). Today, however, marked a historic decision (8-0 ruling) from the Supreme Court of Canada , that defines what ‘title’ actually means, what land it applies to and the rights that First Nations have to use the land. It is far too sweeping to discuss here except to say it changes significantly how the Federal and Provincial governments and project proponents have to deal with  First Nations. In effect large swaths of land have, and will, come under the control of First Nations in BC.  There is not only a duty to consult (which was not consultation at all) and accommodate First Nations – they now require the consent of First Nations. 

It would seem that First Nations really do hold the hammer.  The 1763 Proclamation set the stage that led to today’s court ruling. While there are many ramifications, the most recent one has to do with the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines. There are no treaties on those lands and today’s ruling ends the archaic days when the all-mighty corporations, with government blessings,  could run over local interests. (the approval process for the 1952 Kinder Morgan pipeline project took just one day).

Despite the very legitimate concerns for the environment supported by science, it is very clear that the Federal Government does not care about the natural environment. With their disturbing attack on citizens and gutting legislation that stands in the way, the Federal Government has decided to take the unacceptable risks and have approved the Northern Gateway pipeline. Their real problem however, and perhaps the insurmountable problem, is not with the environmental opposition, (although it is big), but with the First Nations objections. This is the real battlefield now.  This is a very difficult time for First Nations people with much at stake with some potential benefits for struggling communities as well. So while environmental concerns are foremost and tens of thousands of citizens stand with First Nations, let’s hope the First Nations folks are true to their word and are not eventually bought out. Does everyone have a price?  Time will tell.

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Ancestral home

I stand at the edge of the precipice, as my ancestors have for generations, and marvel at the fjord spreading out before me like a silvery, blue puddle.  From this height it is difficult for most to see, but there, if you look very close, is a school of salmon just below the surface lazily making their way along the shore back to their birth stream on the fjord. They seem to be taking their time, enjoying the moment, knowing they will not return. Sometimes an Orca or a pod will appear, perhaps a humpback too, exploring the freedom of these waters and then swimming safely back to the mother ocean.

There is so much life hidden below the surface but it seems lifeless to those who choose not to see.  These waters are bountiful. There will be a catch for me today and food enough for my family. I lean over the edge, spread my wings and I am gone.  Today is a good day, but it will not stay this way – the tankers are coming.

Imagine – it just might happen.

There will come a time when people in the future will watch an old movie and will be able to tell that it is from our era because gas stations will appear in the background of some scenes. Just like we view old movies now, what was once commonplace becomes interesting artifacts lost in time.

So imagine a future when we no longer have to “fill er up”  and ruin the earth to extract the oil and pump billions of tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. Those pictures of gas stations will be a reminder of our era of a shameful dependence upon a filthy, expensive, destructive fuel. People in the future, (my grand-kids and beyond), will wonder how we could have been so stupid and continued to do such a thing for so long with such disregard for their future and the very air we breathe.

Imagine something different. Continue reading