British Columbia

Snuneymuxw First Nation, B.C. Ferries sign formal agreement guiding business decisions in nation's territory

B.C. Ferries and the Snuneymuxw First Nation say they've entered into a historic formal agreement recognizing the nation's treaty rights, that will guide the ferry company's business decisions in Snuneymuxw territory in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.

Document also outlines process for company to consult with the Snuneymuxw on specific projects

Jill Sharland smiles as William Yoachim signs a document in a conference room.
B.C. Ferries interim CEO Jill Sharland and acting Snuneymuxw Chief William Yoachim sign a historic agreement that will guide business decisions on the nation's traditional territory. (Adam van der Zwan / CBC)

B.C. Ferries and the Snuneymuxw First Nation say they've entered into a historic formal agreement recognizing the nation's treaty rights, that will guide the ferry company's business decisions in Snuneymuxw territory in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. 

"It's a first of its kind [agreement] between B.C. Ferries and a First Nation," said William Yoachim, the nation's acting chief, at the signing event at the nation's headquarters this morning.

"It represents a commitment to building a shared path forward."

Four ferry terminals operate in the nation's traditional territory: Departure Bay, Nanaimo Harbour and Duke Point in Nanaimo, and Descano Bay on Gabriola Island.

There are four B.C. Ferry terminals in Snuneymuxw territory: Departure Bay, Nanaimo Harbour, and Duke Point in Nanaimo, and Descano Bay on Gabriola Island. (bcferries.com)

B.C. Ferries said the document outlines "shared goals" and future discussions about how the ferries will impact the nation's villages, economic opportunities, land and water stewardship, and local Indigenous culture.

The document also outlines a process for the ferry company to consult with the Snuneymuxw on specific projects with the aim of obtaining "free, prior and informed consent" from the nation on major decisions.

Rectifying decades of discrimination

Earlier this year, the nation criticized the company for naming two vessels — that were to sail in the territory — using words from another First Nation language, to which B.C. Ferries said the names of its Island Class ships "are not related to the territories or routes on which they may operate."

Chief Mike Wyse also disputed the operation of four ferry terminals in the nation's territory without proper consultation, and said the company has "caused significant negative impacts" and "infringed on our Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854," which recognizes the nation's title to its own lands.

At the signing event, elders and former Snuneymuxw chiefs recalled a time when Indigenous peoples were relegated to the lower decks of the ferries, and were told to stay in their vehicles unless they had to use the restroom.

"I remember when my grandfather told me that we had to go downstairs and be with the cattle and not the humans," recalled elder and former Chief James Johnny, adding he's "always suspicious" when the nation signs an agreement like this. However, he says, he has faith in his nation's council regarding this agreement.

B.C. Ferries interim CEO Jill Sharland said the document is a "culmination of many months of work" and acknowledges the company's past discriminations. 

Yoachim told CBC News that past attempts at conversation with B.C. Ferries to sign a memorandum of understanding have fallen short. 

"For some reason we've never been able to get to where we got to today," he said, adding that he commends B.C. Ferries for "stepping out of the box, and deviating from their colonial practices" to work with the nation. 

"This isn't just going to be a feel-good document that sits on the shelf and says, 'Everything's good and let's all go our own way,'" he said. 

"This is going to be a document that will go to work."

With files from Kathryn Marlow

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