First Nations 'ecstatic' over historic Supreme Court ruling

First Nations across Canada are celebrating today's Supreme Court decision that granted declaration of aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in British Columbia to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation, the first time the court has made such a ruling regarding aboriginal land.

Aboriginal people across Canada celebrate Tsilhqot'in First Nation's win in Supreme Court ruling

Chief Roger William of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation reacts to today's decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The court recognized the Tsilhqot'in First Nation's aboriginal title over a wide area of land it considers its traditional territory. (Chief Bob Chamberlin/Twitter)

It's being hailed as a significant victory for First Nations, and aboriginal people across the country are celebrating today's Supreme Court of Canada decision granting title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in B.C. to the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.

"This decision is such a huge, most important decision that I've been a part of." said Tsilhqot'in First Nation Chief Roger William.

William and other B.C. leaders were together in a boardroom in Vancouver when they heard the news. 

"I was completely surprised. I can tell you this whole room erupted in cheers and tears after this long hard struggle." said Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

The unanimous ruling grants the Tsilhqot'in Nation title to a large area outside its reserve. It covers 1,700 square kilometres of land the group has traditionally used. 

This decision ... will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in British Columbia and throughout the rest of the country.—Jody Wilson-Raybould, Assembly of First Nations regional chief

The Tsilhqot'n First Nation has been fighting the case for more than two decades.

As soon as the decision was announced, speculation began about how it would affect other First Nations across the country. 

"This decision building on previous Supreme Court of Canada decisions will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in British Columbia and throughout the rest of the country where there is un-extinguished aboriginal title." said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould. 

"Just because the Supreme Court of Canada has issued this claim doesn't mean that the government is going to start giving all the land back to the aboriginal people." said Métis lawyer Garth Walbridge.

"But it could have a serious economic impact. The size of the boulder that Enbridge is rolling up the hill to get their pipeline built just got much bigger today, because the First Nations in that part of the country now have much much bigger say in whether or not Enbridge can go ahead." 

Mi'kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater said this decision provides important clarification over what having aboriginal title means and how it will affect resource development projects.

"The aboriginal group in question has the exclusive authority to decide who uses that land and who benefits from that land and, as a result, provincial laws don't apply."

Chief Glenn Hudson of the Peguis First Nation said the Supreme Court ruling will have implications for First Nations in Manitoba.

"In Manitoba specifically, we're talking about hydro developments — I know Bipole III, as far as the dams in the north, flooding that is occurring in our traditional lands," he said.

"They need to come and sit with us to ensure that these negative impacts are addressed when it comes to our communities."

In a statement, AFN acting spokesman Ghislain Picard said, "The court has clearly sent a message that the Crown must take aboriginal title seriously and reconcile with First Nations honourably. This decision will no doubt go down in history as one of the most important and far reaching ever rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada.”