British Columbia

Nisga'a Treaty trailblazers reflect on agreement 20 years after it went into effect

Twenty years ago, history was made when the Nisga’a Treaty came into effect on May 11, 2000. It was the first modern-day treaty signed in B.C., and set a new path in Canada — incorporating inherent self-government written directly into the treaty.

'It was a remarkable accomplishment for all involved,' says lead Nisga'a negotiator

Joseph Gosnell, centre, holds the Nisga'a treaty in 1998, alongside B.C. Premier Glen Clark and Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart. (CBC)

Twenty years ago, history was made when the Nisga'a Treaty came into effect on May 11, 2000. It was the first modern-day treaty signed in B.C., one of only a handful of modern treaties signed in Canada at the time, and it was the first in the country to incorporate inherent self-government written directly into the treaty.

Joseph Gosnell was the chief Nisga'a representative negotiating the treaty with both the provincial and federal governments. He remembers the time well; he recalls long nights in hotel rooms negotiating the terms of the treaty into the early hours of the morning.

"It was extremely trying times," he told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

The treaty was settled at 8:27 a.m. on February 12, 1996, as noted in Gosnell's journal. It was signed May 27, 1998, and came into effect nearly two years later. 

Nisga'a Nation makes history with treaty vote

3 years ago
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The Nisga'a Nation was the first to sign a modern treaty in B.C. 3:03

Lawyer Jim Aldridge was the lead negotiator for the Nisga'a in finalizing the treaty, and he continues to act as chief counsel for the Nisga'a Nation. 

"It was a remarkable accomplishment for all involved," Aldridge said.

The Nisga'a Treaty gave the First Nation title to 2,019 square kilometres of land in the Nass Valley on B.C.'s northwest coast. It meant they were no longer under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act, and the Nisga'a could run their own health services and schools. They were also given an allocation of salmon, moose and other wildlife. 

"Our treaty is 23 chapters long," Gosnell said. 

"We left no stone unturned in what we thought was in the best interests not of just our people but in the best interest of Canada as a nation, which has yet to fully deal with the Indigenous population."

The Nisga'a had been trying to pursue land titles since 1890 when they formed a land committee, but it wasn't until 1976 that treaty negotiations ramped up between the federal government and the Nisga'a. In 1990, the provincial government became part of the negotiations. 

"It was an extremely long journey for the Nisga'a people before that, and on that day the Nisga'a embarked upon the beginning of a new journey," Aldridge said. 

Legacy

Since the Nisga'a Treaty went into effect in 2000, Aldridge says every modern treaty has included self-government.

"That was challenged in the courts, and was ultimately upheld as being a very finely crafted instrument for uniting the rights of Indigenous people into the constitutional structure of our country," he said. 

The Parliament Building of the Nisga’a Nation is located in the Nisga’a Village of Gitlaxt’aamiks. (Gary Fiegehen/Nisga’a Lisims Government)

Aldridge hopes that what the Nisga'a accomplished serves as an example for all Canadians as to what can happen when communities are united. 

"The unity of the Nisga'a is what got them there … and that's an example, I think to all Canadians, about how unity of purpose can result in lasting, positive results."

With files from Andrew Kurjata and Daybreak North

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