After the June 2014 landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling giving the Tsilhqot’in Nation more than 1,750 sq. km. of land west of Williams Lake, BC, it’s more than fair to state that it fundamentally alters the relationships between First Nations and all forms of government. Rather than injecting uncertainty into how all levels of governments deal with First Nations, the ruling helps define for the first time how they can work together, Tsilhqot’in leaders told the Union of BC Municipalities convention attendees.
“The Supreme Court of Canada decision only encourages strong relationships with our neighbours,” said Chief Percy Guichon of Alexis Creek First Nation, one of the six First Nations that make up the Tsilhqot’in National Government. “We need to find ways to work together on these difficult topics,” referring to the many resource based industries. “We do live side by side, and we do need to work on a relationship to create or promote a common understanding among all of our constituents. I know that municipalities have a duty to consult, but I think we need to find the best way forward to consult with each other, regardless of what legal obligations might exist. I mean, that’s just neighbourly, right?” he told the audience of 1000 people. “It gives, we believe, all levels of government and 202 First Nation communities in BC the opportunity to embark on a new course and a new direction and relationship. The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly sent a message that the crown must take Aboriginal title seriously, and it must reconcile with First Nations, not just in BC but in Canada, honourably.”
Chief Roger William, Regional Director of Tsilhqot’in National Government and Chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation said that his community never accepted the government’s view that any title was limited to what he called “postage stamp reserves.” He said BC Premier Christy Clark’s visit to the Tsilhqot’in Nation in early September was a good sign toward building a new relationship.
Municipal governments are also affected by that decision because it upholds that Tsilhqot’in land has constitutional protection, and as such, it has more security than fee simple lands owned by others. For that reason, local governments, the province, and even the federal government are limited in what they can do. “Don’t be fooled by the brevity of the decision. I think this is the most significant legal case ever decided in British Columbia,” lawyer Gregg Cockrill told the UBCM convention. “It has big implications for BC and big implications for the rest of Canada as well. In terms of implications directly for local governments, they are probably as wide as we can think of examples. The door has been kicked wide open.”
The full effects of the court ruling have yet to be understood by both the Tsilhqot’in National Government and Canadian governments at all levels. Chief Guichon said that his people must now work at developing a “new relationship” with the province. He said that they have developed a draft policy around mining as a result of the proposed New Prosperity mine. “The Tsilhqot’in do not intend to ram policies down peoples’ throats. We share a lot of common interests in areas like resource development. We are not opposed to development. We need to find ways to work together, to support one another on these difficult topics.”