COLUMN: New ramifications to ‘It’s all our land’

The grandeur of the scenery, the remoteness, and the isolation were truly remarkable...

It’s been many years since I traversed the Nemiah Valley: the first with a hunting/fishing friend when returning from a Chilcotin country exploration that took us all the way out to Bella Coola; the second with my eldest son engaging in a similar adventure.

From the hauntingly beautiful Choelquoit Lake, Tatlayoko bordered by coast mountains and spectacular Chilco Lake, its waters an incredible colour, we travelled through the Brittany Triangle (home of B.C.’s only true wild horses) to the Nemiah. The track we followed was rough and narrow, suitable only to the most intrepid.

The grandeur of the scenery, the remoteness, and the isolation were truly remarkable. We encountered not another traveller on both trips – the land ‘was ours’ to enjoy.

Today, that land is no longer ‘ours.’

Through the Supreme Court of Canada, the Nemiah band has been granted ownership of all the lands described above plus more, encompassing in all some one million acres.

Since the court decision was rendered, there’s been a lot of handwringing, but as one who has been there, and felt its importance to those who live there, it was a just decision. After all, the people who live there now descend from forebears who populated, gained sustenance and respected it for millennia.

A few years after my travels through the area, Terry Glavin, with the help of band members, wrote “Nemiah, the Unconquered Country.” It wasn’t long before it joined the dozens of other B.C. books in my library, many relating to the Chilcotin country.

Interestingly, the preface to the book contained the following, called The Nemiah Declaration, that begins: “Let it be known as of August 23, 1989: We, the Tsilhqot’in People of Xeni, known as the Nemiah Valley Indian Band, declare . . .”

The statement went on to describe their lands, its uses and its restrictions to others.

Twenty-five years later, those declarations are now law.

In item 7 it notes “We are prepared to SHARE our (land) with non-natives . . .” though it does state permission will be needed, permits to hunt and fish will be required, and respectful use of their lands will be encouraged subject to their system of permits.

The land, some 1,750 square kilometres, is now legally recognized as being owned by the Nemiah people, just as my property is owned with all the rights of ownership relating to use, access and so forth.

Will this allocation have a significant effect on the rest of what we now know as Crown land for the use of everyone who lives in British Columbia?

Absolutely, because in the Nemiah, and anywhere else such legal designations declare “public lands” as being the ownership of resident aboriginal bands, all resources are now under their jurisdiction.

Forest harvesting, mining – even the often overlooked but largely used ranging of beef cattle – will become decisions between the native band owners and those who wish to log or mine, run cattle or hunt and fish.

Any stumpage costs for cutting trees, mineral royalties, range fees, possibly even recreational licensing, presumably will flow to the lands’ owners – the First Nations bands – rather than into provincial coffers.

If all of B.C.’s land claims are settled in a similar ownership way to that of the Nemiah, revenues from 94 per cent of the land mass of this province will flow to First Nations, not government coffers.

That’s the potential to put a lot of financial strain on those who live on/in the remaining six per cent to fund education, health care, the social safety net, etc., because up until now most of us have reaped the benefit of natural resource revenues.

The Supreme Court of Canada has sent a clear message that in future, consultation and accommodation must happen with First Nations.

In the meantime, some 155,000 B.C. aboriginals are thrilled with future prospects, and the Nemiah band is justifiably proud and happy to have finally realized, through the highest court in the land, their right to ownership of their own land.