Tsilhqot’in look to powerful future
Chief William sees court award of title ‘a game changer that is going to improve Canada’
Tsilhqot’in Chief Roger William says he is still celebrating his nation’s Supreme Court of Canada June win, which granted his people title to 1,750 square kilometres of its traditional land in the remote Nemiah Valley.
William, 49, is chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, one of six Tsilhqot’in nations. He has held the position since 1991 when he was 25 years old, with the exception of one five-year term between 2008 and 2013.
His tribe, which lives about 250 kilometres west of Williams Lake and is reached via a 120-kilometre gravel road, has 430 members who vote in a chief every five years.
The land title case, which began in the B.C. Supreme Court, was launched in William’s name, on behalf of himself and all members of the Tsilhqot’in nation, and is the first ruling to give an aboriginal nation in Canada title to their territory.
Q What do you and your people do for a livelihood in the Tsilhqot’in, given that it is such a remote area?
A We hunt for big game like deer and moose, or ducks and geese, and we fish for salmon and trout. My mom is 76 and she still scrapes and tans hide. Most of the people hunt and fish for food, but they also trade some of what they catch. There is also some ranching of cattle, and there are still some wild horses that people catch and trade.
Q What is it like to live in such a remote area?
A In the 1970s they started building the road, but before that it was just wagon roads and trails. We have no BC Hydro, but we’ve been using green energy like solar panels, windmills and hybrid generators for about 15 years. We had no indoor plumbing until the 1980s and we had radio phones until 2000. There is still no cellphone service, but people have microwave phones and satellite TV and Internet. When I was a child, I could probably count on one hand the number of vehicles in the valley and I used to get to Williams Lake by team horse and wagon.
Q Do you have any children?
A Yes, I have three boys, aged 24, 19 and 17, and one daughter, age 11. We have a school here that goes to Grade 9. After that they board in Williams Lake, but my wife, Shannon Stump- William, moved to town two years ago so they could live with her and go to school. My wife now has a job in Williams Lake, working with troubled youth. My oldest son is working in the fisheries and my second oldest is training to become a carpenter.
Q Tell me how the land title court case started.
A It will go way back to 1862 and the smallpox epidemic. People say there were 10,000 people living here before the smallpox epidemic, but today there are only about 3,500. In some of our tribes, 100 per cent of the people were wiped out, while in others 20 per cent died. The six communities are what’s left and we were put on reserves, and there were penalties for not being on reserve.
The smallpox epidemic and the European influence divided the Tsilhqot’in people because some tribes didn’t have the manpower to cremate their dead, and they began burying the dead, which was not our custom. Changing the death ceremony was like breaking the law and that created big division, even among families. Also, some members began having relationships with the Catholic Europeans and having children, fencing people out, building houses and cultivating their land. All of this created division in our nation.
There was a gold rush in 1864 and the Europeans were trying to build a road into the Tsilhqot’in. Some of the people were working with the Europeans and trading with them for new commodities like knives, guns, sugar and flour. My great-grandfather was part of the group who wanted to stop the road. Some of the crew were mistreated and there was also a threat of another smallpox outbreak. The Chilcotin War broke out when the warriors wiped out the road crew and others. The warriors left on foot and hid in the woods, but then later were told there would be a peace treaty if they came in, but when they gave themselves up they were shackled, tried and hung in Quesnel. Since then there has been no trust by Tsilhqot’ins of Europeans. At the same time, there was no huge retribution because of the big divide in our nation. Earlier this fall, Premier Christy Clark exonerated the six chiefs who were hung in 1864 and acknowledged that they were warriors in a territorial dispute, not criminals or outlaws. But that was more than a century after the fact.
Q How did you learn about these stories?
A There is no real book made from our Tsilhqot’in history, but this story, our legends and our ritual beliefs and our laws are passed down to the children through generations. The Tsilhqot’in war was the same. Since I was young, they told us stories about this. I never knew English until I was six and went to residential school in Mission. Before that, I spoke our language and heard these stories from my parents and our elders. They would say, be careful who you talk to, who you tell these stories to, because they might tell on you and you might get hung for that. As I grew up I already knew there was mistrust among Tsilhqot’in and against the government. There was this mistrust and I grew up with that and that’s what I was born into.
Q Do your children speak your language?
A They understand it, but they don’t speak it. The Tsilhqot’in youth really want to know the history and language, but they have all of these other influences. We have spoken our language to them since they were babies, but English is all over the place. They know the language, the histories and the stories, but they could know more.
Q What happened to your great-grandfather?
A He didn’t trust that there would be a peace treaty, so he didn’t go in and they couldn’t catch him. For years, the government was trying to make sure they got all the warriors because they were scared they were going to get attacked again. My great-grandfather and some others hid in the mountains for many years, but he eventually died of old age.
Q You became a band councillor at the age of 22 and chief at the age of 25. During that time, there has been an ongoing battle over the land, its use and things like logging and mining. You’ve been through many processes, including roadblocks, declarations, a long-running and ongoing negotiation with Taseko Mines over Fish Lake, and other attempts to get control over your land. Eventually, your case went to the B.C. Supreme Court, the B.C. Court of Appeal and now, finally, the unanimous Supreme Court of Canada decision has recognized your people’s title over a large portion of your land. What is your vision for the future?
A June 26 was a huge decision, pretty exciting. The stories, legends and laws that our elders from the Tsilhqot’in testified about in the court case were a big part of it. Who we are as Tsilhqot’ins, through our ceremonies, our laws, our laws and our traditions, was used to win title. For me, I believe it’s a game changer. For the first time ever in Canada, North America or in the world, a First Nations group won aboriginal title in the highest court in its country. It’s never been done, anywhere before in history. So now, although the B.C. treaty process started in 1992, there are only a few First Nations with ratified treaties. B.C. and Canada have an opportunity — now with title, we can sit down and negotiate a stronger agreement that will enhance not only aboriginal people, but also B.C. and Canada. Tsilhqot’ins want to make decisions and get revenue on the whole Tsilhqot’in territory. What that looks like today or five, 10 or 15 years in the future, we don’t know. We want to show our people, and B.C. and Canada, that this win is a game changer that is going to improve Canada. So, as we move forward, we want to be able to negotiate in a way that is going to work for us all. Some agreements will be quick and some are going to take longer. Our vision is that we want to be caught up — what do we mean by being caught up? Well, our language has been impacted, our culture, our traditional use. We’ve got our own people who can teach these things, but we need resources. I want to use the word ?esggidam, which is a Tsilhqot’in word referring to our ancestors before contact with Europeans. This person was very strong, very powerful and very respectful to other people, to other races, to the land, to its resources. A lot of us have got to the point where we don’t respect other people or the land, and we need to fix that, to get back to ?esggidam, to get back to being that person.