Finally, A Sensible Approach
Finally, A Sensible Approach
A new handle on the “land claims industry”
Nuchatlaht First Nation is a small group whose main reserve is near Zeballos on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Most of the population—fewer than 170 people—live away from home. Employment and business opportunities are scarce after 150 years of resource exploitation since Canada’s Confederation. Logging, mining and fish farming have compromised much of the land and waters in Nuchatlaht territory.
Like nearly half of the First Nation governments in BC, Nuchatlaht has spent a fortune in land-claims research and negotiation, as well as millions of dollars in legal costs, in the attempt to protect their Aboriginal rights and title. An entire industry has been created around “land claims.” Lawyers and non-native consultants have been the major beneficiaries.
Several treaties have actually been signed. Time will tell whether these treaties are fair. I know that the late James Gosnell, who initiated the landmark Nisga’a Treaty settled in 1998, would never have signed it in its final form. When Pierre Trudeau asked him what Aboriginal title meant, James gave an answer that made him famous: “We own BC lock, stock and barrel.” But the treaty was drastically rewritten after James died, and it has been used as a template for all other BC treaties.
Not all BC First Nations have chosen to undertake the costly treaty negotiation process, and member tribes of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs do not support that process. This year, Nuchatlaht First Nation signed on with the Jack Woodward law firm. That company represented the Tsilhqot’in Nation in their victorious historic land title case in 2014, when the court ruled that a semi-nomadic group using the land part of the time may still claim title.
The current treaty negotiations attempt to divide resources, but Woodward’s strategy is a much more sensible approach, proving occupancy and economic utilization of territory and resources by First Nation occupants. The Tsilhqot’in case will not rectify all of the wrongs of the past, but it levels the economic playing field and restores the Tsilhqot’in people to their rightful place in society. The recognition of their historic and traditional right to their territory is a positive first step toward economic self-sufficiency.
The Nuchatlaht people have made a great decision in moving forward with their Aboriginal title struggle with Jack Woodward. The court process will not cost millions of dollars or require decades to reach a decision— the precedent has been set. But it is a historic case. As Jack Woodward put it, “This is the first application of the Tsilhqot’in decision.”
An honourable political stance of the Nuchatlaht people is that they continue to use their traditional hereditary chieftainship system, known in their language as Ha’wilth. Walter Michael, Nuchatlaht’s Tyee Ha’wilth (head chief), is a descendant of a long line of chiefs whose responsibility was and continues to be the protection of the people’s territory. That territory, and its resources under the protection and management of the Tyee Ha’wilth, is called his Hahoulthi.
Chief Walter Michael and Jack Woodward are doing a great service to the Nuchatlaht people and all of Canada. Not only are they saving tons of money on legal costs, they are providing economic stability for generations to come.