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After 136 Years, Native Canadians In British Colombia Get Land Back


IT was 1860 when the chiefs of the Nisga'a tribe canoed 700 miles down the Pacific coast to Victoria, British Columbia, seeking a land-claim settlement. But when they knocked on the legislature's door, they were sent away.

This week, after more than a century of on-again-off-again negotiating, the tenacity of the Nisga'a was rewarded with an agreement on their claim to some 9,150 square miles of ancestral lands. ''At 8:27 a.m. [Monday], our canoe arrived,'' Joseph Gosnell, the lead native negotiator, said after negotiations concluded.

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Under the agreement-in-principle, expected to be unveiled yesterday, the provincial government hands over title to about 770 square miles of land - or less than 1/10th of what was sought - to the 6,000-member tribe.

Besides getting mineral and timber rights, the Indians also receive $146 million for lands given up and lucrative rights to one-third of the commercial salmon fishery in the area.

Aside from possibly setting a world record for longest negotiations, the Nisga'a deal is an important precedent in British Columbia, which until this week was the only Canadian province not to have addressed Indians' land claims by treaty.

Only since 1991 has British Columbia even entertained the possibility of making concessions to native land claims. Uncertainty over the claims has held up billions of dollars of provincial development.

''I think it's a milestone in treaty negotiations for aboriginal people in this province,'' says Lee Morrison, director of native studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. The Nisga'a deal is also significant because it is a potential model for native land claims and self-government across Canada, legal experts and native authorities say.

Ever since a 1973 Supreme Court ruling led to a federal policy for settling aboriginal land claims, native Canadians have laid dozens of claims to most of British Columbia and huge swaths of Canada.

Today there are 58 such ''comprehensive'' land claims across Canada, 48 in British Columbia alone. Ten claims - all outside British Columbia - have been settled so far. The Nisga'a agreement could help speed that pace.

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A key part of the Nisga'a agreement provides for municipal-style native self-government, which some see as a model for other native groups. But others question its impact.

''The $64,000 question is in the still-unknown details surrounding self-government,'' says Russel Barsh, associate professor of native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta province. ''The B.C. government is willing to let these Indians keep some land. But it's not willing to talk about restructuring government. There are Indians out east who won't like that.''

On the eastern seaboard, for example, are nearly 40,000 Micmac Indians spread across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Quebec. Their officials say they want a different kind of deal on self government.

''Our goals are to become more self-reliant and less marginalized politically and economically,'' says Kevin Christmas, a senior adviser to the Union of Nova Scotia Indians. ''We don't want to be stuck in our own municipality. We want cooperative government where we have a voice and power over taxation. It's the opposite of the Nisga'a agreement.''

If all goes as planned, a formal treaty document on the Nisga'a deal will be signed in a few months after ratification votes by the Nisga'a people and by provincial and federal legislatures.

Yet some suggest a provincial election this fall could still throw the Nisga'a deal for a loop.

The New Democratic Party of Michael Harcourt won election in 1991 in part by promising to resolve the natives' claims. Today, however, the provincial Reform Party and Liberal Party opposition are calling for public hearings into the Nisga'a deal, decrying so-called special privileges for the Nisga'a.

If elected, some opposition members are talking about dumping the deal. But that may not be politically palatable either, since it would likely send shock waves and spark protests nationwide.

Native road blockades protesting land claims were common in British Columbia last summer, culminating in a tense confrontation at Gustafsen Lake in which a heavily armed group shot at police. Nobody wants to revert to that, Professor Morrison says.

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