Two Native groups have taken legal action to establish their rights to the land on which the B.C. legislature sits. The Esquimalt and Songhees bands, from the Victoria area, have filed a 15-page statement of claim with the Supreme Court of British Columbia in which they seek a declaration that the legislature rests on land that is legally theirs through treaty rights.

A deal was signed between the bands and colonial governor Sir James Douglas back in 1850. The terms of the agreement ensured the Natives a reserve on the very piece of land where the legislature buildings now stand. Construction on the buildings first began in 1893 and was completed in 1916. The site is prominent as it sits on the beautiful and popular Inner Harbour of Victoria.

“It is my intention to attempt to defend the right of the citizens of British Columbia to be the owners of their legislature,” said B.C.’s Attorney-General Geoff Plant. Mr. Plant, who is also the Minister responsible for treaty negotiations, added that the province will only file a statement of defense after it has had the opportunity to more closely review the suit filed by the two bands.

The Native claim argues that no release was ever given to develop the land, and that there had never been any extinguishment of treaty rights in the area. The Canadian government has also been included in the suit due to the passing of an 1876 federal order in council giving title to government buildings on the site to the B.C. government.

“They wouldn’t be going to court if they didn’t think it was a solid claim,” said Greg McDade, the Vancouver lawyer representing the bands. Mr. McDade feels that the case is a strong one in that there is a “significant record” on which the claim is based. He also said that the focus of the case is not the legislature itself, but the land on which it is built. “The legislature is simply incidental to the lawsuit,” he said.

The legislature land claim comes in the wake of Native disapproval over provincial government plans to hold a referendum on how land-claims treaties