In a historiclegal victoryfor First Nations in British Columbia,the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled aboriginal people have proven title to 2,000 square kilometres of land inthe Chilcotin district.
The 485-page ruling issued Wednesday morninghad its roots ina case that began in 1990witha dispute over trapping rights and forestry on Crown land.
In2002, Chief Roger William, representing the Tsilhqot'in First Nations, went to court to prove aboriginal title to 4,400 square kilometresin the Chilko Lake area in the province's interior.
The marathon trial with nearly 30 lawyers sat for 339 days over five years.
Wednesday'slandmark rulingdeclared the six nations of the Tsilhqot'in First Nations have proven title to about 2,000 square kilometres of that land— and they have rights to harvest on the rest of the territory.
"The Province has no jurisdiction to extinguish aboriginal title," Judge David Vickers wrote in the executive summary.
"Tsilhqot'in people have an aboriginal right to trade in skins and pelts as a means of securing a moderate livelihood. These rights have been continuous since pre-contact time, which the court determines was 1793.
"Land use planning and forestry activities have unjustifiably infringed Tsilhqot'in aboriginal title and Tsilhqot'in aboriginal rights."
The lawyer for the First Nations, Jack Woodward, said only a legal technicality prevented the court from making an outright declaration that the First Nation has title.
"The court has held that the Tsilhqot'in have proven that they own it and that the Crown has no defence to that proof," Woodward said.
"So who are the rightful owners?Obviously the aboriginal peoples are the rightful owners."
Woodwardsaid the 3,000 Tsilhqot'in people wish to pursue their traditional lifestyle, and that they don't wish to halt all resource industries such as logging and mining, but that they do want them pursued in a manner that's more sensitive to the environment.
The legal precedent set by the decision — which includes a ruling that the provincial Forests Act will no longer apply to the lands —hassignificant implications for resource industries in B.C., Woodward said.
In the executive summary, the judge stated: "Aboriginal title land is not 'Crown land' as defined by provincial forestry legislation. The provincial Forest Act does not apply to aboriginal title land."
The province has been instructed by the court to manage the territory to preserve the resources necessary for theFirst Nationsto exercise their rights.
Maa-nulth Final Agreement introducted in legislature
The ruling came down the same day that Premier Gordon Campbell welcomed members from the five Maa-nulth First Nations to mark the introduction of legislation to ratify the Maa-nulth First Nations Final Agreement.
The Maa-nulth First Nations have a combined population of approximately 2,000 people, with many members living near Bamfield, Port Alberni and Ucluelet, and in Kyuquot Sound.
According to a statement issued by the B.C. government, that treaty includes $73.1 million in cash, annual resource revenue payments averaging $1.2 million for 25 years and a land package totalling approximately 24,550 hectares to the five First Nations.
It also recognizes the Maa-nulth First Nations' aboriginal rights and title, and defines rights regarding ownership and management of lands and resources.
When the treaty comes into effect, each of the five Maa-nulth First Nations will own their land and there will be no more Indian reserves.
The treaty includes self-government provisions and a phase-out of tax exemptions. It will have to be ratified by the federal government before it becomes law.
Final agreement negotiations are continuing between the B.C. government and the Sliammon Indian Band, the Yale First Nation and the Yekooche First Nation.