We are all here to stay. We agree to a new government-to-government relationship based on respect, recognition and accommodation of aboriginal title and rights.
These words, around which the Government of British Columbia and First Nations agreed in 2005 to build a New Relationship, are the essential foundation of a positive transformation in the lives of Aboriginal peoples and communities, and in relations between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of this Province.
From the time B.C. became a province of Canada, the Province has operated on the principle of denial – denial of who we are as distinct peoples, and of our unique cultures, spiritualities, and methods of social organization. Successive governments have denied, and continue to deny, that First Nations peoples were here first, that we occupied and used our lands and resources, and that we hold Title and Rights throughout the Province. The New Relationship must end, forever and absolutely, this heinous tradition of denial. Recognition of Title and Rights is the bedrock for a respectful, just, and equal, relationship, through which reconciliation can take place.
Meaningful outcomes have simply not materialized from the New Relationship. While the rhetoric of recognition is spoken at the highest level of government, the status quo of denial is implemented on the ground. If this does not change soon, the New Relationship will completely collapse, and in its place, we will have more conflict, uncertainty, and disharmony. The urgency for real action and change could not be greater.
On Wednesday the British Columbia Supreme Court, in a historic decision of singular importance, made it crystal clear that the era of denial of Aboriginal Title and Rights must end. In Xeni Gwet’in the Court found that that the Tsilhqot’in Nation had established their Title to 200,000 hectares of their Traditional Territory. On Aboriginal Title lands, the Province exercises no statutory and decision-making jurisdiction – decision-making authority rests with the First Nation. In reaching this conclusion, the Court rejected and condemned the Province’s practice of denial, and its impoverished and “postage stamp” approach to Aboriginal Title. Further, the Court clarified that ever since joining Confederation the Province has been unlawfully occupying Aboriginal lands and taking Aboriginal resources. Compensation is owed for these past and ongoing wrongs.
What Xeni Gwet’in demands is immediate action towards recognition-based reconciliation. Embarrassingly, and sadly predictably, the Province’s initial response to the decision has been the dinosaur of denial. The Province’s wish to dismiss the judgment as a non-binding opinion is unwise and unhelpful. After the Supreme Court of Canada decisions in Delgamuukw (1997) and Haida (2004), the Province insisted that nothing had changed. They were wrong. To play that broken record again would be to end the New Relationship, and the promise it held.
Premier Gordon Campbell is quoted as saying the decision makes clear that the way to move forward is through negotiations. This is what the Province’s indigenous peoples have been saying for generations. But negotiations must be based on recognition of Aboriginal Title, and must lead to reconciliation. The Tsilhqot’in rejected the treaty process, because of its denial-based principles, and went to court and won. The existing treaty process is based on ideas and principles from an era that our contemporary legal and moral values simply cannot tolerate. Negotiations within and without the treaty process must now proceed on the basis of recognition.
Two years ago I worked closely with Premier Campbell in forming the New Relationship. It was a leap of faith for him, and for me; and I respect him greatly for the choices made. But that leap was a leap of vision. Now we are compelled to act. It is time to walk the New Relationship walk, and in so doing, create a British Columbia of promise, prosperity, and reconciliation for all. If we fail to do that, future generations will look back on this moment in history, bewildered by the opportunities missed, and dismayed by the hardships we wrought on those who had to come after us.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip (250) 490-5314