Nisga’a matriarch Mercy Thomas, also known as Nisibilada, has issued a remarkable statement warning against the sale of Nisga’a lands, held in fee simple ownership under provisions of the Nisga’a treaty.
This idea of putting Aboriginal lands into a status which will enable them to be bought and sold freely on the land market is one of the favourites of the many rightwing observers who have taken to writing about, and advising Indigenous people of the best way to move forward.
It has always been a dream of Euro societies to get hold of lands reserved for Aboriginals; and the fee simple form of ownership has been found, especially in the U.S., but also in Canada, to be one of the most effective routes to stripping Indigenous people of their lands.
Thomas’ letter, just issued, is a remarkable and heartfelt call for Nisga’a to avoid taking this route. In a long document, she writes:
“Fee Simple lands can be bought and sold…. to anyone. It doesn’t have to be with another Nisga’a. It can be sold to any Kam’chii’waa, people from other Nations around the world who are running out of lands to house their people. We have a Fee Simple in Cloverdale. We bought it (with a mortgage, hanging over our heads) and we can sell it to anyone… or I can live there for as long as I want, as long as I have money. The difference is – on our lands on the Nass, Observatory Inlet, Portland Canal/Inlet… we had a place that we called home, our own homelands. Not just me, my children, my grandchildren and my generations yet unborn. Your generations yet unborn.
“Without land, there is no government. There will be no Nisga’a people.
“Without lands, we will be a lost Nation, we will be a shadow of what we once were as a proud Nisga’a people, we will be ghosts roaming this earth.
“Our children will become tourists on our lands, and they will say, ‘Our people owned this land once upon a time – long ago.’ The Nisga’a negotiators sold it out for the Treaty, the people in charge of our lands made our lands Fee Simple Lands, so the lands can be sold to non-Nisga’a.
“I’d like to return to the 1950s for a moment. Some of you weren’t even born then. Frank Calder was the President, my late husband Judge Anthony Robinson was one of the Plaintiffs in the Calder Case, he and I were part of the movement for the Nisga’as to protect our ownership to our lands, there were others, who have since died. The late James Gosnell, who later became President, I had a lot of respect for James…. The outspoken Bill McKay, who made a lot of sense when he spoke. Our land was never to trade for the Treaty, never to surrender our lands, never to barter our heritage away. They must be turning over in their graves to see what has happened and what is happening today.
“As Nisga’as, we had pride, we had honour, we had dignity, prestige, we had status, we had principles, and our worth was our lands. We made sacrifices, we had basket socials, raffles, money donations, bake sales to pay for our lawyer; When we traveled, we paid our own way. We did not receive money from the federal nor the provincial government to fight for our lands. We were not paid off to sell out our lands, and that was our strength. Money was not important to us, our lands were. …It’s heartbreaking to see what is happening today…”
Not only did they not receive government money to defend their lands, but the Nisga’a were among the people who fought longest and with incredible persistence, to declare that they had never lost their lands, had never surrendered them, and challenged the assumption of the Euro society that the new government had authority over them.
I tell this story in my book, People of Terra Nullius.
“In 1887, when a federal-provincial inquiry visited the Nass valley, an old blind man called Neis Puck listened for some time, then said, ‘I am the oldest man here and I can’t sit still any longer and hear that this is not our father’s land. Who is the chief that gave this land to the Queen? Give us his name, we have never heard it….’
“Another chief, David Mackay, said: ‘What we don’t like about the government is their saying this: We will give you this much land. How can they give it when it is our own? We cannot understand it. They have never bought it from us or our forefathers. They have never fought and conquered our people and taken the land away…It has been ours for thousands of years.’
“The Nisga’a traveled to Britain in 1906 and 1909 to defend their land, and in 1911 they persuaded the Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier to submit the question to the Supreme Court, but unfortunately Laurier was defeated in an election before he could do so. In 1913, the Nisga’a unsuccessfully petitioned the British Privy Council, which was then the final court of appeal. And when, in 1927, they finally approached the Canadian Parliament, their argument was treated with contempt by the parliamentarians of the day, who described their claim to Aboriginal rights as ‘more or less fictitious’ and blamed white agitators for stirring them up. Then, the Canadian Parliament passed one of the most shameful pieces of legislation in Canadian history, forbidding anyone to raise money that would be used in defence of Indian land claims.”
Eventually, with the help of lawyer Thomas Berger, later a judge of the Supreme Court (who resigned when he stepped outside the customary discretion incumbent on a judge and insisted that Aboriginal rights and title should be recognized in the 1980s constitution, something that happened, largely in response to his intervention), eventually it was the Nisga’a who brought about a complete turnaround in the Canadian government attitude towards Aboriginal rights when they persuaded three judges of the Supreme Court in 1973 that there was substance in their arguments.
To do justice to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, that decision persuaded him to abandon his opposition to Aboriginal rights, which he had ill-advisedly rejected until that moment.
This warning, now issued by matriarch Thomas, is built upon many years of bitter experience suffered by various Nations in the U.S. under the so-called “termination” agreements which put Indian lands into fee simple, in the 1930s and later, so making it possible for them to be sold off to people with more money. More than one Nation virtually disappeared under such treatment.