British Columbia

First Nation lawsuit claims private island worth a cool $54 million

Tsawout First Nation wants James Island near Victoria recognized as a traditional village site under its 1852 treaty with Governor James Douglas.

Tsawout First Nation says James Island near Victoria was traditional village site

A First Nation near Victoria is claiming ownership rights to the most valuable private island in British Columbia. 

The Tsawout First Nation filed a civil lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court this month seeking title to James Island, a 400-acre property just off Island View Beach near Victoria.

James Island, which is owned by Seattle Billionaire Craig McCaw's company, JI Properties, was assessed at a value of $54.4 million in 2017, according to the B.C. Assessment Authority. It features a main residence, about six guest homes, an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and a private airstrip.

"What we're seeking among other things is a declaration that James Island ought to have been set aside as a reserve for the First Nation," John Gailus, the lawyer for the Tsawout First Nation, told On the Island host Gregor Craigie. 

The lawsuit asks the court to order the governments of Canada and British Columbia to return ownership of the Island to the Tsawout and pay compensation to JI Properties. 

Gailus said the lawsuit claims the island was illegally taken from the Tsawout nation's predecessors, the Saanich tribe, contrary to the terms of the treaty they signed with Vancouver Island's then governor, Sir James Douglas, in 1852.

The original Douglas Treaties are held at the Royal B.C. Museum Archives in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The treaty promised that village sites and enclosed fields would be set aside as reserves, and Gailus said he believes the Tsawout can prove James Island, or part of it, was a village site.

If the court does not recognize James Island as a Tsawout village site, he said, the lawsuit also claims aboriginal title as defined in the 2014 Tsilqot'in case, which recognized Indigenous rights and title of a semi-nomadic tribe to traditional lands used seasonally.

Gailus noted that the Tsawout First Nation's rights under the Saanich Treaty were upheld in an earlier lawsuit in the 1980s that blocked a marina development in the traditional fishing area of Saanichton Bay.

The current lawsuit also claims damages for loss of use of James Island.

"It would be a lot because we're talking about going back to the 1870s and moving forward," Gailus said. 

"So it might be a very small sum when you begin, but any economist will tell you when you start compounding the interest over time, it's a lot of money."

While the lawsuit is likely to take years to reach the trial stage, Gailus said a negotiated settlement is always possible, particularly since James Island was for sale several years ago. 

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Island