Huge win for Interior natives

B.C. land-claims process 'dead,' says grand chief

David Carrigg, The Province

Published: Thursday, November 22, 2007

B.C. First Nations are celebrating a court ruling yesterday that gives a small band near Williams Lake title to a massive swath of land.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the court victory is a "nail in the coffin" of the B.C. treaty process.

Under that process, bands have received title to about five per cent of the land they have claimed plus cash.

Aboriginal title is a legal reality in B.C., says Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.View Larger Image View Larger Image

Aboriginal title is a legal reality in B.C., says Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Jon Murray, The Province
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Yesterday's ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Justice David Vickers awarded the Xeni Gwet'in title to half the 400,000 hectares they had claimed west of Williams Lake in the Nemiah Valley.

"What the judgment confirms is what we already know," Phillip said. "The full measure of aboriginal title is a legal reality in B.C.

"Why would any First Nation be foolish enough to ratify any [treaty] settlement for less than five per cent of their territory when the Xeni Gwet'in [have] achieved recognition of their title to 50 per cent of their territory?

"Clearly the [treaty] process is dead."

Vickers also ruled that the province had no power over the Xeni Gwet'in lands, which means the band has greater control over logging, mining and exploration on its land.

The Xeni Gwet'in court battle began as a bid to prevent large-scale logging on the band's traditional territory.

Vickers found the band had established exclusive and continuous occupation -- the current legal test of title -- to nearly half that parcel of land.

It is the first time a court has determined a specific band has title to a specific piece of land.

Alphonse Gagnon, hereditary chief of the Wet'suwet'en Nation, called the ruling a major victory. "This shows there is significant progress to be made through the courts," he said.

Yesterday's ruling came as Vancouver Island's first modern-day treaty was introduced in the B.C. legislature.

The Maa-nulth treaty covers five First Nations and about 2,000 people on the Island's west coast. The deal includes $73.1 million in cash, annual resource-revenue payments averaging $1.2 million for 25 years and a land package including nearly 25,000 hectares. The total agreement, which includes hunting and fishing allotments, could be worth as much as $500 million.

B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister Mike de Jong said the Supreme Court ruling is a "non-binding opinion by the judge."


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