Fi­nally, A Sen­si­ble Ap­proach

Geist - - News - Randy Fred

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.

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