Last month’s unanimous Supreme Court decision in favour of BC’s Tsilhqot’in people is the first time the court has ever issued a direct declaration of Aboriginal title to a First Nation in this country. This has far-reaching implications for mining, forestry, pipeline projects, resource extraction and how the Canadian government will have to deal with First Nations.
AFN spokesperson and Regional Chief for Quebec/Labrador Ghislain Picard called it “a landmark decision that compels us all to embark on a new course. The court has clearly sent a message that the Crown must take Aboriginal title seriously and reconcile with First Nations honourably. This decision will no doubt go down in history as one of the most important and far reaching ever rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada.”
The William v. Canada case took over two decades to resolve but its effects will be felt for much longer. Experts and lawyers arguing about what it really means for other First Nations across Canada. While most agree that TransCanada Corporation’s plans for the Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick is in jeopardy, others question whether or not it would apply to Ontario’s Ring of Fire mining development.
Bill Gallagher, a lawyer who specializes in resource disputes on First Nations territory, said the decision wouldn’t apply in Ontario as the issue of Aboriginal title to the land was settled when the numbered treaties were signed. He added however that First Nations across Canada have won an amazing a number of court cases on this issue.
Gallagher has written a book, Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, detailing how First Nations have won case after case on natural resource projects. Gallagher said this has given First Nations an important voice in the economic future of Canada.
Ontario chiefs say the Tsilhqot’in decision sends an important message to governments and resource corporations about dealing in good faith. Ontario’s Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle said the province would review the ruling.
Ontario will not be the only province or territory looking at the ruling, as there are large tracts of unceded territory throughout Canada. The federal government will be joining them as the city of Ottawa is on the same type of territory as the Tsilhqot’in and no treaty has ever been signed by the Algonquin of Ontario. It should be interesting how the balance between government and the rights of Aboriginal peoples will play out.
Interestingly enough, the day before the Supreme Court decision was handed down, the Vancouver city council formally acknowledged that the city’s land base actually belongs to three local First Nations.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said landowners shouldn’t worry as the declaration, while an important gesture, was largely symbolic. He added, “We are formally acknowledging that we are on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. There was never any treaty with these nations … At this point, the city is acknowledging that fact.”
The recent decision may have them regretting that move. Vancouver’s property values are worth around $374.1 billion. A First Nations property tax of just 0.5 per cent would see over a billion dollars a year for the three Nations. An interesting idea and a great balance.