The Haida Nation formally launched their groundbreaking claim to aboriginal title to the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii, following a ceremony at the First Nations Summit meeting on Wednesday March 6, 2002.
In the Writ of Summons filed by Haida lawyer Terri Lynn Williams Davidson, the Haida are seeking a declaration that the Haida Nation holds aboriginal title over all of Haida Gwaii including the seabed resources of over half of Hectate Strait and 320 kilometres out into the Pacific Ocean.
The legal team is headed by aboriginal rights lawyer Louise Mandell, who successfully argued a legal duty to consult in the Weyerhaeuser case. It is the first aboriginal title lawsuit since the 1997 landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Delagamuukw which found that aboriginal title exists in Canada.
Haida Gwaii is an archipelago of hundreds of islands on the northwest coast of British Columbia that is 300 kilometres long by 85 kilometres at the top in the shape of a rough wedge that comprises roughly 5800 square kilometres.
“Aboriginal title is a compromise for us. We think we can find a way to live with Canada. What we want to do is clarify our relationship with Canada,” said Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation.
The Haida are also seeking an order quashing all licenses, leases, permits and tenures that are incompatible with aboriginal title and the exercize of aboriginal rights. The Haida also want an accounting of all profits, taxes, stumpage dues, royalties and other benefits acquired by the province and Canada and third parties and are further seeking damages and compensation for what the writ describes as the “Defendant’s unlawful conduct.”
The Haida aboriginal title claim was launched, in part, in reaction to the BC Liberal government’s plan to lift the moratorium on off shore drilling for oil and gas in the waters off the Queen Charlotte Islands.
There has been a federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas for thirty years and a provincial moratorium was put in place in 1989.
The Geographic Survey of Canada estimates there are untapped reserves of oil reserves of 9.8 billion barrels and gas reserves of 29.5 trillion cubic ft.
Guuwjaaw said that the Haida are not totally opposed to off-shore exploration as long as it could be done in an environmentally friendly way. He said that so far, no one has been able to prove that such technology exists to safeguard the waters and coastline of Haida Gwaii.
“We don’t believe offshore oil and gas can be safely obtained – the technology doesn’t exist and we are not prepared to see offshore oil and gas drilling in any waters within a 200 mile limit surrounding Haida Gwaii,” Guujaaw told the Vancouver Sun.
It has long been speculated that only the Haida can meet the test set out in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision because of their geographic isolation.
Guujaaw said the Haida have been working toward the launch of the case for over three years, seeking and gaining the support of the First Nations Summit and the AFN.
The launch of the case came a week after the Haida won a major victory against the province and Weyerhaeuser which found a legal duty to consult the Haida over a tree farm licence. In the BC Court of Appeal’s decision, the court all but admitted that the Haida will win a claim to aboriginal title.
“If my opinion, there is a reasonable probability that the Haida will be able to establish Aboriginal title to at least some parts of the coastal and inland areas of Haida Gwaii,” wrote Justice Lambert.
Of the roughly 5000 residents of Haida Gwaii, about half are non-native and support among non-native residents is growing.
“This case is about respect for the earth and for each other; it is about culture and about life,” said Guujaaw.