British Columbia

20 years ago, this court case changed the way Canadians understood Indigenous rights

Delgamuukw set a precedent for Indigenous rights and the use of oral testimony in Canadian courts.

Delgamuukw set a precedent for Indigenous rights and the use of oral testimony in Canadian courts

Celebrations were held in the Wet'suwet'en community of Hagwilget in northern B.C. on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark Delgamuukw v. British Columbia court case. (George Baker/CBC)

The 20th anniversary of one of the most important court cases in the history of Indigenous land and title rights is being celebrated in British Columbia today.

The decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia was delivered on Dec. 11, 1997, setting a precedent for how treaty rights are understood in Canadian courts, affirming the recognition of oral testimony from Indigenous people.

Yvonne Lattie says the case was significant because it gave legal support to the Gitxsan people's understanding of their relationship with both the land and the government.

"[The decision recognized] that we have rights and responsibilities, that we can now speak and be acknowledged as having never surrendered our lands or our territories," Lattie said.

Yvonne Lattie says the decision of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, delivered 20 years ago Monday, not only set legal precedent, but also legitimized the Gitxsan nation's understanding of their relationship with both their land and the federal government. (George Baker/CBC)

Wah Tah Keg'ht (Henry Alfred) was one of the Wet'suwet'en leaders who testified in the courts. He said he was pleased to see the case being celebrated 20 years later because he got involved for future generations.

"It's not for me I'm going to the courts," he remembers saying.

"It's for my grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren. I don't want to see them pushed around."

Precedent-setting case

The Delgamuukw decision stemmed from a 1984 case launched by the leaders of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations, who took the provincial government to court to establish jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of land and water in northwest British Columbia.

In 1991, B.C.'s Supreme Court ruled that any rights the First Nations may have had over the land were legally extinguished when British Columbia became part of Canada in 1871. The Nations appealed and eventually the case made its way into the Supreme Court of Canada, which found treaty rights could not be extinguished, confirmed oral testimony is as legitimate as other forms of evidence and stated Indigenous title rights include not only land, but the right to extract resources from the land.

The case has been widely cited as an influencing factor in future court decisions, including the 2014 Tishqot'in decision which further established the existence of Indigenous title to non-treatied land in British Columbia.​

Johnny David, Mikhlikhlekh, was the first Wet'suwet'en chief to give evidence in the historic Delgamuukw land claims court case that set several precedents. (Jennifer David)

Modern inspiration

The case also helped set the stage for other reconciliation initiatives, said Leona Prince, vice-principal of aboriginal education for school district 91 in northwest B.C.

A member of the Lake Babine Nation, Prince was a high school student in nearby Burns Lake when Delgamuukw was underway. She said the case inspired her to push for a First Nations 12 course at her school, and later prompted her to work to incorporate Indigenous culture and knowledge into B.C.'s education system.

"It was the early stages of let's see some change, let's acknowledge traditional values, traditional lands and culture within our educational and judicial systems," she said. "It was huge."

Writing for CBC earlier this year, journalist Trevor Jang explained what the case means to him.

"I didn't find pride in my Wet'suwet'en identity until I learned about my great-grandfather and the impact he had on First Nations land rights in Canada," he said.

"Johnny David, who held the hereditary chief name Mikhlikhlekh, was the first Wet'suwet'en chief to give evidence... The impact of their words helped to shape the government's legal obligation to consult First Nations when proposing resource development projects on traditional lands."

With files from George Baker, Nicole Oud and Carolina de Ryk