Echo Valley in the Chilcotin.
A court decision to give land title to the Tsilhqot’in First Nations near Williams Lake has far-reaching implications for development in Northern B.C.
A Supreme Court of Canada ruling Thursday morning found that British Columbia breached its duty to consult and granted land title to the Tsilhqot’in First Nations in a far-reaching decision that First Nations groups say could have an impact on the pending Northern Gateway Project.
The case began two decades ago, in 1983, when natives blocked a logging road in the Chilcotin area, claiming the province had granted a commercial logging license on land they considered their traditional territory.
The Tsilhqot’in First Nation, representing six bands, had taken their fight to B.C. Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.
But it wasn’t until today’s ruling from the SCOC in a unanimous decision that the Tsilhqot’in First Nations received a clear decision that they hold aboriginal title over their lands.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the SCOC ruling that the appeal should be allowed and “a declaration of Aboriginal title over the area requested should be granted. A declaration that British Columbia breached its duty to consult owed to the Tsilhqot’in Nation should also be granted.”
But the court did make clear that economic development can still go ahead even if there is no consent by First Nations—though only if the government can make the case that the development is pressing and substantial, and only after consultation and fulfilling its fiduciary duty.
Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said the ruling puts the onus back on government to consult with First Nations and not industry. “It’s absolutely a wonderful day for First Nations," he said in an interview Thursday morning. "The federal government had punted it over to Northern Gateway and now we know that if you’re going to do projects like Northern Gateway, they need our declaration and if they don’t have that we can declare that project dead.”
Sterritt said the ruling by the Supreme Court recognizes full aboriginal title for the first time: “There is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind anymore that this title does not exist. It really is an amazing day for First Nations and this ruling makes us equals at the table to help build the economy in British Columbia.”