British Columbia

Late Chief Delgamuukw helped transform Canada's legal system and recognition of Indigenous rights

Gitxsan hereditary Chief Delgamuukw, also known as Earl Muldon, is being mourned nationwide following his passing last week. He was the plaintiff for the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations in their 1984 legal challenge against the B.C. government for jurisdiction over the lands and waters of their traditional territories in northwestern B.C.

The hereditary chief, known as Earl Muldon, is being mourned nationwide following his passing last week

Gitxsan hereditary chief Earl Muldon (Delgamuukw) died at 85 on Jan. 3. (Coast Mountain College/Facebook)

Gitxsan Nation hereditary chief Gordon Sebastian (Luutkudziiwus) remembers the late Chief Delgamuukw, Earl Muldon, as a brave advocate who challenged the government on systemic racism and changed the way Canadians understand Indigenous rights.

Muldon, who also used the last name Muldoe, passed away at 85 on Jan. 3.

He was the named plaintiff in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, a court case launched in 1984 by leaders of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations around jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of land and water in northwestern B.C.

The case was launched after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that First Nations' land rights were legally extinguished when the province became part of Canada in 1871. Muldon, along with other Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en leaders, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and won the case in December 1997.

The ruling set a precedent for how treaty rights are understood in Canadian courts, affirming Aboriginal title in B.C. and the recognition of oral testimony from Indigenous people, a major change to the country's legal system.

Sebastian says Muldon's decision to step up as a representative plaintiff originated in his early experience with anti-Indigenous racism when studying at university in Vancouver in the 1950s, which led to him dropping out.

"He said, 'I'm never going back to university again," Sebastian told host Carolina de Ryk Wednesday on CBC's Daybreak North. "He said that because he said he was treated like a dog and many times he was called a dirty Indian."

WATCH | Earl Muldon received B.C. Lifetime Achievement Award for Aboriginal Art

But he continued to push for education about and for Indigenous people, and his artistic works include the carved entry doors of the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, and a totem pole restoration project for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs.

Following his passing, the federal government issued a statement remembering Muldon as a master carver who won the B.C. Lifetime Achievement Award for Aboriginal Art in 2009 and was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2010 for his advocacy for Indigenous rights and preservation of the Gitxsan culture.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald also reflected on the legacy he created in the courts, saying in a written statement that the Delgamuukw ruling "created a precedent where First Nations title, laws and languages could sustain as evidence in the court of law." 

But beyond his legacy as a leader, Sebastian remembers Muldon as a man of sympathy who took great care of his students when teaching art at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in the historic village of 'Ksan near Hazelton, B.C., from 1969 to 1984.

"He always shared his food and his home with the students that travelled to various areas in the province," he said. "He pushed people to be successful."

Dozens of people lined the streets of Hazelton, B.C. on Jan. 5, 2022 as the body of the late Earl Muldon, known as hereditary chief Delgamuukw, was transported through the community. (Darius Gladstone-Howard)

Sebastian says Muldon also helped restore the lives of prisoners who the court released to his school on bail.

"He played a huge part in helping these folks turn their lives around," Sebastian said. "He would tell stories and build them up and teach them about the culture, and then you also got them into the art world."

And, he said, despite the great strides made toward recognizing Indigenous rights over Muldon's lifetime, there is still work to be done.

He pointed specifically to the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline project being constructed in northwestern B.C., despite failing to gain the support of hereditary Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan leaders.

Sebastian says First Nations should insist on and defend their Supreme-Court-of-Canada-confirmed rights.

"Earl would stand up and say to these people that we need to protest, that we need to occupy our land," he said.

Earl Muldon in an undated photo. He taught art at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in the historic village of 'Ksan near Hazelton, B.C., from 1969 to 1984. (Coast Mountain College/Facebook)

LISTENGordon Sebastian remembers the legacy of the late Chief Delgamuukw, Earl Muldon:

Last week, Gitxsan hereditary chief Delgamuukw, Earl Muldon, passed away.The name Delgamuukw will forever be linked to Indigenous rights and title. Luutkudziiwus, Gordon Sebastian, talks about his life and legacy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winston Szeto

Digital journalist

Winston Szeto is a journalist with CBC News based in Kelowna, B.C. in the unceded territories of the Syilx. He writes stories about new immigrants and LGBTQ communities. He has contributed to CBC investigative journalism programs Marketplace and The Fifth Estate. Winston speaks Cantonese and Mandarin fluently and has a working knowledge of German and Japanese. He came to Canada in 2018 and is proud to be Canadian. Send him tips at winston.szeto@cbc.ca.

With files from Daybreak North

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