The Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Vancouver Sun
Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The error of taking away First Nations' land has not yet been corrected.

Edward John, Special to the Sun
Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dennis Burich plays Sir James Douglas as he stands on the steps of The Big House at Fort Langley and reads the proclamation announcing the birth of British Columbia. It was originally read on Nov. 19, 1858, creating the province but taking first nations' land away from them.

--Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun, Files
Today British Columbia is officially 150 years old.  We extend sincere congratulations to the people of this province and the government of B.C. in commemorating this important anniversary.  We share an incredibly beautiful and resource-rich land which has provided a livelihood for most British Columbians.

Not necessarily for B.C. first nations, however.  The goodwill of the people and the political will of governments is required to address socio-economic disparities and honourably and fairly resolve the "land question."

On Nov. 19, 1858, James Douglas, governor of the colony, issued a proclamation dispossessing our peoples of our lands. Douglas called them "Indian Territories" and "wild and unoccupied."  He named the colony British Columbia and paved the way to establish a government.

Three months later, on Feb. 14, 1859, he would "declare" that "all lands in British Columbia, and all the Mines and Minerals therein, belong to the Crown in fee."

Douglas's description of our territories as "wild" may have a certain poetic allure, but these lands were certainly occupied.  Our "Indian Territories" were and continue to be the ancestral homelands of many different self-governing indigenous peoples and nations including Dakelh/Dene, Coast and Interior Salish, Haida, Tsimshian/Nisga'a/Gitxsan, Tlingit, Ktunaxa, Kwakiutl, Nuu Chah Nulth and so on.

None of them, or their ancestors, consented to the transfer of their lands to the Crown by way of agreement, treaty, acquiescence, conquest, warfare or otherwise.

This pattern of conduct on behalf of the Crown, unfortunately, did not stop with Douglas.

Successive governments put in place policies and laws that: Established Indian residential schools across Canada whose purpose, as acknowledged by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his June 11, 2008, apology, was to "kill the Indian in the child," undermine families and sever cultural and linguistic ties, bonds and connections; prohibited and made illegal cultural and political practices exercised through the indigenous potlatch system; prohibited Indians from voting in provincial elections and from holding lands which were being freely pre-empted by recently arrived immigrants.

As a result of legal victories by first nations in the past 40 years, governments must now rectify the declarations of governor Douglas and those of subsequent colonial, provincial and federal governments.

This, however, is a difficult and complicated political and legal undertaking.

The Crown has given away massive amounts of land and resources to waves of immigrants and financial interests.  Citizens now own homes and hold legal title over lands for which compensation has never been paid to the original owners.

Lawyers for Canada and B.C. continue to question the rights and existence of first nations peoples.  This forces aboriginal people into expensive, time-consuming litigation within a largely inaccessible legal system.

The position of the courts is clear: The provincial government and predecessor colonial governments did not and do not have legal authority to extinguish first nations' aboriginal rights and title.

Moreover, the courts have made it clear this matter should be resolved through good faith negotiations.

The irony is that first nations negotiating in B.C. have borrowed more than $300 million from the very governments who inherited the spoils of governor Douglas's declarations.

Despite these negotiations, the progress we hoped for has failed to materialize.  Why?  Crown negotiators continue to come to the table without mandates, and deny that negotiations are about legal rights.  Instead, they'd like to extinguish or modify inherent rights recognized through successive court decisions.

We first nations refuse to accept the Crown's colonial-based extinguishment policies.  We are adamant that our inherent rights be recognized through legislation and be affirmed in treaties and agreements.  With this basic rights recognition, we expect to share the benefits from land and resources.

As B.C. celebrates its 150th anniversary, and as the world looks to the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, it is time to do the right thing and change these self-serving Crown policies and positions to benefit all.

Grand Chief Edward John is with the First Nations Summit Political Executive.