The highest couvt of the land fuis made an important and surprising decisionthat will affect all First Nations in some way or other. In a decisionthat shocked many, the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that Native oral law is just asvalid as any written law enacted by a government.

This simple idea has brought the Canadian and B. C. governmentsto their knees before the Gitxsan-Wet’suwe’ten people.

Since 1848, their rights on the land were denied by the governments and companieswhile they watched the forests being chewed up and their very way of lifemenaced. Their oral traditions that told of their relationship

with the land were tossed out of court and deemed invalid.

Now, after the longest trial in Canada’s history, Native

oral tradition has been upheld, a precedent for all Native people in this country andbeyond. Don Ryan, chief negotiator for the Gitxsan, says Natives should study thecase and use it to protect their interests. Involved in the case forover 20 years, Ryan said his people owe thanks to Cree leadersin their struggle, particularly Chief Billy Diamond for his workon the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and Grand Chief MatthewCoon Come, another inspiration in his life.

The Nation: What was the court case about?

Don Ryan: The whole issue is the traditional territories we’ve got. In this case there’s two tribes involved, the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwe’ten. In total it’s 22,000 square miles for both nations. The issue in the court was that the Gitxsan still have an interest in the land. The province has always said all of our interests were extinguished when sovereignty was asserted in British Columbia, when the colonies were set up in 1848.

I remember some of their arguments for this were that the Gitxsan have windows, TVs and indoor plumbing.

Yes, that was the frozen-rights argument. That was dismissed. They sent that down the tidy bowl.

What was won in the Supreme Court case?

There were several issues we were dealing with. Firstly, the court allowed in part our appeal of an earlier B.C. Court of Appeal decision regarding our land claim. The second question the court dealt with was the province’s cross-appeal, in which B.C. sued Canada for not dealing with our issue. That cross-appeal was dismissed. And the third thing the court did was order a new trial.

What does it mean for Aboriginal people?

Oh, geez, there are lots of different significant things in the decision. The big issue for us was to say that the Gitxsan have Aborigi-

nal title to the land. What we were trying to get them to wrap their heads around is that the Gitxsan actually have their own ideas as to how title is established in law, in Gitxsan law, through oral histories and all the oral laws. We’ve got the notion of title and the notion of law.

The court really addresses that. They say, yes, the Gitxsan had laws before the Europeans showed up and introduced common law into the area. So

“Both Gitxsan law and common

law are protected by Section 35 of the Constitution.”

I think the gains

we made on Aboriginal title are very important because (they recognized) we have a proprietaryinterest in everything. It isn’t just on the reserve. It’s off-reserve as well. In forests, forexample, it’s very clear that Aboriginal people have an interest in the trees. And not just forAboriginal purposes. You could use it for commercial purposes now, which hammers the frozen-rightsargument to pieces.

The court agrees oral law has the same status as written law.

Yes, as common law.

Does that apply to all First Nations?

Oh, sure. The decision starts to spell that out. It doesn’t come to a final conclusion, but it talksabout all those issues. One of the things they ordered is a retrial on self-government because thejudge in the first trial didn’t deal with the evidence we put forward properly. Now, with the retrial,we are going to have to reintroduce all that evidence and show to the court what we mean in terms ofGitxsan laws and how we set up our own government.

In a way, this could change the entire the relationship with Canada.

That’s right. The decision wasn’t a knock-out punch for us. That’s not how the court works.It’s very rare the court will give you that knock-out punch. If the court said we uphold the wholeappeal, the Gitxsan have absolute title, they have self-government, the whole world would collapse!(laughs)…

Have you heard any reactions yet?

Oh, there’s all kinds of reactions. Well, the government won’t talk to us. You’ll see, the governmentworks really slow. It’s not going to move quickly on this.

The court also said we have a proprietary interest in the land. That’s a definitive statement thateverybody’s been skirting for years. That means we have a proprietary interest in all the commoditieson our land. It isn’tjust your Aboriginal activities that are protected. You actually have an interestin the land…

Before the court case started in the 1980s, we launched what is called a “leave pendance” on all theproperties on our land. All we

wanted to do was put a notation on those documents so when somebody buys a piece of property they’ll see the Gitxsans have Aboriginal title on this property. You can just imagine that, getting that in the mail. We lost that case before, but now we could re-do this case. Part of what I wanted to demonstrate was if a person buys a piece of property, they can’t stop the Gitxsan from going there to fish. They should see this right on the property papers, that the Indians have access rights.

This is the significance of the case. It opens so many opportunities for people to demonstrate your interests on the ground.

Are there a lot of non-Natives living in your territory?

Yes. The Wet’suwe’ten are outnumbered 10-to-1. There are about 3,000 of them and at least 30,000 non-Natives. In the Gitxsan territory, we’re 10,000 and we’re still the majority here-about 70 per cent of the population.

Part of what we’re doing is to give proper standing to the traditional government. That’s what the case really does for us. It’s very significant that the court recognizes the traditional laws, the traditional form of self-government and where we could go with this. It gives us the potential we can use. The point I make to our people is you take the decision and you create the situation you want. For example, we have an interest in all the fish. We have an interest in the environment.

Have you been involved with this for a long time?

I’ve been chief negotiator since 1994, but I’ve been involved right from the beginning, 1975-6. It’s been a longtime. It’s been one of my babies.

How did you feel when you heard the decision?

I was in shock. I was anticipating something completely different. I could see if we had pressed the issue harder in terms of title and governance they would have moved away from us. But because of the problems we had with the earlier judge’s decision, that gave us a second opportunity.

Part of my effort now is to try to get people to appreciate what was said (by the court). The federal government-there’s nobody in the federal government; it’s just a void. It’s the same thing with the province. That’s the difference between the two systems. Whereas, here it’s very intimate. We’re real people who we’re talking about. Who am I talking to across the table? It’s just the Crown, some nebulous entity. How are they going to react to the decision? We’ll see what happens.

I’m pleased in terms of what the potential is. What we have to do is create the situation to reflectwhat we see inside the decision, not to reflect what we think they said. That’s a completely differentapproach. It’s got implications for people in the Middle East, indigenous peoples right around theworld. It applies right across North America, Central and South America. Everybody’s watching this.