Recent Wet’suwet’en land defence is about responsibilities and rights to the land and water. It is also about a land tenure system fundamentally structured by racism articulated as the historical dispossession of Indigenous peoples throughout the region. It is time for the province to address this issue publicly and make restitution.
Indigenous peoples have lived on the Northwest Coast since the beginning of time. Historically, they thrived on these vast and abundant territories largely because of offerings given to human people from the lands and seas, including the salmon, which provided a form of nourishment necessary to sustain a prosperous and flourishing population. These relationships to lands and waters are bound to the laws and legal traditions of governing Indigenous societies. They are remembered, preserved, and transmitted through the intricate and sophisticated oral traditions of the numerous Indigenous groups who have protected and lived as one with these lands and waters since time immemorial.
Indigenous nations developed sophisticated governance, social, and economic systems throughout their territories, such as cultivating clam gardens, nurturing camas crops, and developing reef-net fishing that allowed them to live in reciprocal relationships with the lands and seas that sustained their lifeways. The establishment of these sophisticated systems facilitated nation-to-nation diplomacy and thus the establishment of trade routes throughout the vast regions, including passages from present-day Alaska to the Columbia River. These governance, social, and economic systems remain central to the prosperity of Indigenous nationhood presently. As Nuu-chah-nulth Hereditary Chief Umeek E. Richard Atleo explains, “For millennia the principles presented in origin stories were verified through the practice of oosumich and applied in daily life and ceremonial potlatches, resulting in societies that managed, for the most part, to balance the rights of individuals and groups as well as the rights of humans and the other life forms.”1
For more than 500 years, Europeans have sought to conquer the world. Armed with Christian notions of racial superiority, the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese brought their prejudices with them as they sought global commercial and strategic advantage in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Explorers such as Captains James Cook and George Vancouver believed they had the right to claim, in the name of the Christian empire, any area of the world. This belief was based on the Doctrine of Discovery, a racist theory asserting that if Europeans went any place in the world inhabited by non-whites and non-Christians, they had “discovered” it and had the right to claim that territory. Often, they erroneously labelled Indigenous peoples as “nomads” incapable of governing the lands, waters, and people.2
On Vancouver Island, for example, the Spanish and British clashed for control in the 1789-90 “Nootka Crisis” – both claiming sovereignty over the lands occupied by the Mowachaht and other Nuu-chah-nulth peoples. The clash between the two imperial powers ended in a stalemate and the Mowachaht people rightfully returned to Yuquot (Friendly Cove), their traditional home for thousands of years.3
The Mowachaht had at first welcomed the newcomers, hoping to gain access to new products through trade. Comekela, a Mowachaht Chief, boarded a trading vessel returning to Macau in 1787 and stayed in China for nearly a year.4 Dozens of Chinese workers came to Yuquot (Friendly Cove) as part of early British fur-trading missions out of China. However, the European crews’ colonial and ethnocentric attitudes of superiority soon led to frictions. Increasing Indigenous resistance led to violent clashes – Robert Gray, master of the Columbia, attacked and killed dozens of people and ordered the bombing and destruction of the village of Opitsaht in 1792. Led by Chief Maquinna, the Mowachaht and their allies attacked and captured the US trading ship Boston in 1803, killing most of the crew.5 Diseases brought from Europe, however, decimated Indigenous communities, with many losing up to 90 percent of their pre-contact community members. Colonialism put Indigenous peoples in impossible situations and survival demanded at times accommodation with new, powerful forces. Protest took many forms, and it is that seam that we follow to understand the long history of resistance and resurgence that has brought us to where we are today.
The video "Yuquot: Where the Four Winds Blow" was created based as an earlier project by the research project Asian Canadians on Vancouver Island: Race, Indigeneity, and the Transpacific, based on experiences at Yuquot Summerfest 2018. This video is being released for the first time as part of the launch of the 150YC Enhanced Digital Edition.
To view Indigenous territories around the globe, explore the Native Land map.
Despite such violence and loss of human life, Indigenous peoples remained determined to defend their lands and continuously challenged the violent expressions of colonial expansion. However, in 1846 the US and British governments negotiated the Oregon Treaty, creating new and fundamental problems for Indigenous peoples.
The Oregon Treaty (officially the Treaty of Washington), negotiated by the US and British governments in 1846, is today seen by Canadian courts as the legal basis for Crown or settler sovereignty over “British Columbia.”6 At the time, the British and US governments both claimed they had the right to expand their borders to include the “Oregon Territories” or the whole of the Pacific Northwest, dividing the land along the 49th parallel into what became “British Columbia” to the north and the states of Washington and Oregon to the south. As the Assembly of First Nations and others have clarified, however, the assertion of British sovereignty over these Indigenous territories was historically, and remains presently, based on the discredited and racist Doctrine of Discovery.
According to this doctrine, the Spanish pointed to Christopher Columbus as their basis for claiming the Americas. In the 1846 negotiations with the US government, the British pointed to James Cook, George Vancouver, Alexander Mackenzie, and David Thompson as their “discoverers” of “British Columbia.” Given that 100,000 or more Indigenous peoples were living in the region, to suggest that it had been “discovered” by British explorers was, and is, ridiculous. Nor did the British even bother to consult the Indigenous peoples who they knew lived and claimed the land as theirs. This erasure of Indigenous peoples is how the Doctrine of Discovery was applied in practice. In continuing to rely on this treaty, are Canadian courts and governments not reproducing colonialism today?
Set at the 49th parallel, the new border arbitrarily cut through numerous Indigenous territories, including Nuu-chah-nulth, W̱SÁNEĆ, Lekwungen, and many others. Indigenous nations throughout these vast border regions have always opposed and resisted the imposition and burden of this artificial boundary, which continues to severely disrupt the political, legal, economic, and cultural governing autonomy and continuity of these Indigenous nations.
The late Dave Elliott Sr., W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) Elder, recalled: “It was 1846 when they divided up the country and made the United States and Canada. We lost our land and our fishing grounds. It very nearly destroyed us; all of a sudden, we became poor people. Our people were rich once because we had everything. We had all those runs of salmon and that beautiful way of fishing. When they divided up the country, we lost most of our territory. It is now in the State of Washington. They said we would be able to go back and forth when they laid down the boundary, they said it wouldn’t make any difference to the Indians. They said that it wouldn’t affect us Indians. They didn’t keep that promise very long; Washington made laws over our Federal laws, British Columbia made laws over those Federal laws too, and pretty soon we weren’t able to go there and fish. Some of our people were arrested for going over there.”7
Predicting that they might lose control of the territory south of the border, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1843 built a fort on Songhees lands that would eventually become Victoria. This marked the transition from the fur trade era to that of settler colonialism. James Douglas, the governor of Vancouver Island at the time, signed 14 agreements with First Nations (often termed the Douglas “Treaties”) in order to secure land for settlers, but any such attempt at negotiated agreements ended in 1854.
The British empire established the colonies of Vancouver Island (1849) and British Columbia (1858) and then merged the two into “British Columbia” in 1866. The Gold Rush of 1858 brought many newcomers to the territory, particularly from the United States.11 The miners’ incursions into the interior of the province resulted in serious confrontations as Indigenous people pushed back. At the same time, James Douglas issued a special invitation to the Black community in San Francisco to come and settle (see next chapter).
After Douglas, however, the colony aimed to bring in white settlers to secure it as a white dominion of the British empire. First Nations never agreed to this plan, and though some welcomed the newcomers, others resisted. This resistance would increase over time as settlers and corporations began to seize land and resources. The colonial state allowed a single, white settler to stake out and claim 160 acres or more of land (pre-emption) while forcing Indigenous people onto reserves, barring them from pre-empting land. Faced with First Nations opposition, the colony frequently responded with gunboats and violence to reinforce its control.12
This was the case in Victoria in 1862 when a smallpox epidemic occurred. Though some Indigenous people received a vaccine, others were not immunized, including most Indigenous peoples visiting from other parts of the province. As described by the British Colonist on April 28, 1862, “Police Commissioner Joseph Pemberton orders the immediate removal of all aboriginal people in Victoria, except for those ‘employed by the whites.’ He gives the Tsimshian one day to leave and arranges for a naval gunboat to ‘take up a position opposite the camp to expedite their departure.”13 The spread of the disease from Victoria to other parts of the province killed thousands of Indigenous people.
In the aftermath of a smallpox epidemic that killed thousands of Indigenous people in 1862–64, Tsilhqot’in warriors led by Lhatŝ’aŝʔin (Klatsassin) declared war against further white incursions into their territories, and twenty-one settlers died. The war party agreed to talks but were immediately arrested. In 1864, Judge Mathew Begbie tried and convicted six of the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs, including Lhatŝ’aŝʔin, for murder. They were executed. The provincial and federal governments have since exonerated the Chiefs for any wrongdoing and have acknowledged the hangings as a miscarriage of justice.14
Faced with pressure to join the United States, the all-white, male BC legislature decided that uniting in the newly formed Canadian federation was its best option. In 1871, BC and Ottawa signed the Terms of Union that allowed the colony to become a province of Canada.17 Three specific articles of that agreement had (and have) major implications for Indigenous peoples and other racialized groups:
Article 13 appeared to have given control over First Nations peoples and their lands to the federal government. However, a closer reading of the language reveals that the province retained veto power over the administration of First Nations persons and lands: “The charge of the Indians, and the trusteeship and management of the lands reserved for their use and benefit, shall be assumed by the Dominion Government and a policy as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government shall be continued by the Dominion Government after the Union.”18 Article 13, negotiated by Joseph Trutch, meant that the provincial government could institutionalize the policies promoted by Trutch, despite ostensible federal jurisdiction. As the foremost authority on this history put it, by the end of the 1870s: “The Province had won. It had imposed its views on title and reserve size, and, to ensure that they were followed, had obtained a veto over reserve land allocation for the chief commissioner of land and works, a provincial official.”19 The reserve system in BC was disastrous: “In taking away almost all their land, it had very nearly snuffed Native people out. Yet, in radically changed circumstances, Native lives were still being lived.”20 And, as we demonstrate in the following pages, Indigenous resistance to colonization of their lands intensified.
“Nobody Knows Him: Lhatŝ’aŝʔin and the Chilcotin War,” Great Unsolved Mysteries | bit.ly/2Kf9gRX
A key architect of BC’s assaults on Indigenous peoples in the colony was Joseph Trutch.15
The BC provincial government was able to use Article 13 to institutionalize policies that endured for more than a century, including:
Forced off their land onto these reservations, Indigenous people then saw their children forced into residential schools based on the ethos of “killing the Indian in the child.” Subsequently Indigenous people were regulated out of the fisheries and prevented from hunting on their traditional territories.21
It is a terrible legacy that lives on, but also one that is continually challenged by Indigenous peoples themselves. In assessing BC’s history, we should keep in mind the conclusion of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls:
“Colonial violence, as well as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, has become embedded in everyday life – whether this is through interpersonal forms of violence, through institutions like the health care system and the justice system, or in the laws, policies and structures of Canadian society. The result has been that many Indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls finds that this amounts to genocide.”22
We concur with this assessment and believe that what happened in BC conforms to the UN Genocide Convention. What do you think?
Often caught in a jurisdictional clash between provincial and federal governments, Indigenous peoples and nations throughout BC never relinquished their faith in the fact that they were, and are, the rightful and sovereign stewards of these lands. These inherent Indigenous rights have only recently begun to be recognized in BC’s and Canada’s legal and political institutions.
Based on the Trutch formula, the provincial government aggressively pursued the dispossession of Indigenous land while forcing communities onto small reserves. As the provincial government exercised its veto over land issues, the 1876 Indian Act gave the federal government legal authority on many fronts, including the expropriation of Indigenous lands, banning the potlatch and other Indigenous ceremonies, administering Indian residential schools,24 and enforcing a myriad of discriminatory regulations. Against such racism and oppression, Indigenous peoples throughout BC have always opposed and resisted oppressive and tyrannical rule.
Immediately following BC’s confederation to Canada, Indigenous leaders engaged Canada’s political and legal arenas opposing the expropriation of their lands. Below are only a few examples (of many) whereby Indigenous leaders petitioned provincial, federal, and international institutions to assert their legal and inherent land rights.
One of the earliest resistances occurred in 1874 by the Stó:lō who under the leadership of Peter Ayessik, Chief of Hope, submitted a petition on behalf of himself and 109 other Chiefs to the federal Superintendent of Indian Affairs protesting the reduction of their lands and reserves.25
Treaty 8 Tribal Association | treaty8.bc.ca/about
Massive Indigenous resistance to miners entering their territories in the northeastern area of the province (Peace River) in the late 1890s led the federal government to broker a treaty with Indigenous peoples in the area (including the Dane-Zaa speaking First Nations of Blueberry River, Doig River, Halfway River, Prophet River, Saulteau, and West Moberly).26 Treaty 8 of 1899 covers a large area of northwest Alberta and northeastern BC. However, the BC government ignored this federal initiative at the time as part of its persistent rejection of Aboriginal title or treaty talks. This area is the site of the massive Site C Dam project that remains contested and that may never reach completion, as well as one of the centres of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing of gas fields) for the natural gas industry.27
In 1906, Chiefs Charlie Tsulpi’multw (Cowichan), Joe Kayapálanexw (Squamish), and Basil David (Secwépemc) travelled to London, England, to meet King Edward VII and to lay before him a petition on behalf of BC First Nations leaders.28 Their appeal outlined their grievances and brought significant attention to the outstanding issue of Indigenous land title and the plight of First Nations in BC.29
In March 1911, Peter Kelly (Haida) and nearly a hundred Chiefs gathered in Victoria to present a statement30 to BC Premier Richard McBride questioning the province’s unlawful assertion of sovereignty over Indigenous lands and demanding the right to take their case to the courts. McBride summarily dismissed their claim of Aboriginal title and refused to allow the case to be heard in the courts.31
Pressure from Indian agents, some churches, and others in BC led to an Indian Act amendment in 1884, commonly known as the Potlatch Ban, that made it illegal for First Nations people to participate in cultural ceremonies, celebrations, or festivals. Through this amendment, the government specifically targeted First Nations in the West, declaring illegal the “celebration of the Indigenous festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or the Indian dance known as the Tamanawas [Sundance].”32 Anyone caught engaging or assisting with such ceremonies was guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to imprisonment. This section of the Indian Act was amended several times between 1884 and 1933, extending extraordinary powers to Indian agents to arrest and punish anyone caught participating or assisting in such ceremonial spaces.
“The History of the Potlatch”
U’mista Cultural Centre | umista.ca/pages/collection-history
Chief Dan Cranmer (Kwakwaka’wakw) of ’Yalis (Alert Bay) disobeyed the ban and organized a Potlatch on ’Mimkwamlis (Village Island) in December 1921. He and 44 others were arrested. Authorities threatened villagers, requiring that they surrender their Potlatch treasures or be sent to jail – 22 ended up in Oakalla Prison. The seized masks and regalia ended up in museums around the world. Only in the past 30 years have some of these sacred objects returned to the Kwakwaka’wakw, most repatriated to the U’mista (Alert Bay) and Nuyumbalees Cultural Centres (Cape Mudge). Nonetheless, thousands of stolen sacred and cultural items of the Kwakwaka’wakw (and other Indigenous nations) remain alienated from their homelands and caretakers.33
Despite these repressive measures, First Nations peoples carried on with such ceremonies, recognizing that the most important governance, political, legal, economic, cultural, and social decisions were made within such spaces. The continuance of these ceremonial practices ensured the cultural and physical survival of these Indigenous nations. Further, individuals, such as Dong Chong, a Chinese immigrant, understood the importance of these political, legal, economic, cultural, and social duties and supported Indigenous groups in carrying out such practices. For example, Chong provided supplies for the hosting of Potlatches in the area. Beyond never reporting on the illegal activities, when large Potlatch orders came in, Chong often extended store credit to those unable to pay their bills.34
In 1884, the Indian Act was amended to legally require that children of “Indian blood” under 16 years of age were required to attend “European-style” schools. With this amendment in the late-nineteenth century, the government introduced an utmost tyrannical policy and thus ushered in the Indian residential school era. Although a law required parents to send their children to industrial, day, or boarding schools, many Indigenous families refused. In response, the Indian Act was amended on various occasions, eventually making Indian residential school attendance mandatory in 1920. Nuu-cha-nulth parents of children and youth at Christie Residential School (Hesquiaht) continually protested mistreatment of the students. In April 1917, the youth rebelled “in a kind of revolution” and that summer they attempted to burn down the school.35
In BC, the federal government funded at least 22 residential schools operated by the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches of Canada.36 For more than a century, thousands of Indigenous children throughout the province were abducted from the loving embrace of their parents, families, and communities and forced to attend industrial, day, and residential schools where most experienced forms of physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse. Tragically, many died from such abuse, never making it home to their families.
The Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia (1912-1916), commonly known as the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, was established in 1912 to “resolve” First Nations reserve and land questions throughout the province. Valuable reserve lands, mostly in the southern and interior territories, were reduced or cancelled altogether, while reserve additions included mostly undesirable, rocky, and arid lands.37
In 1916, the Indian Rights Association and Interior Tribes of British Columbia united to form the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia in direct opposition to the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission.38 Among the founding members of the Allied Indian Tribes were John Tetlenitsa (Nlaka’pamux), Peter Kelly (Haida), Charles Barton (Nis’gaa), Dennis Peters (Sto:lo), Andrew Paull (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), William Nahinee (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), and James Teit.
In 1926, the Allied Tribes petitioned the Canadian Parliament, demanding an inquiry into the Indian land controversy in BC and requesting a hearing at the Privy Council. In this same year, Chief William Pierrish (Neskonlith) travelled to London, England, to petition King George V on Aboriginal title and land claim matters in BC.39 This led to a two week parliamentary hearing at which Andrew Paull, Peter Kelly, and other Indigenous leaders advocated for recognition of aboriginal title.40 The federal government responded vengefully with a 1927 Indian Act amendment, making it illegal for First Nations persons to obtain funds to hire legal counsel to advance Aboriginal title cases. This ban lasted for more than two decades. Not only had the BC and federal government dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands, taken their children, and denied them access to food security, they then forbade them access to the courts.
Indigenous resistance continued in the 1930s and wartime years. The Native Brotherhood of BC, founded in 1931, became an important rallying point for Indigenous activism. The newspaper The Native Voice that began publication in 1946 was also important in keeping the flame of Indigenous resurgence alive in these difficult times.41
With growing international attention to human rights and increased Indigenous activism in the post-WWII era, the federal government was pressured to revise the Indian Act in 1951. Consequently, some of the more flagrant provisions, including the Potlatch ban, compulsory attendance at residential schools, and the land claims ordinance, were dropped at this time. Despite this comprehensive overhaul, the revised Act maintained its longstanding gender-discriminatory framework, which meant that First Nations women (and their children) would continue to lose their Indian status for marrying non-status men.
Claims of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia, June 1926, Report and Evidence 1927 | https://bit.ly/3fkY2al
From 1908 until his death in 1922, James Teit worked with the Allied Tribes and BC’s Indigenous leaders to assert their claim that until the contentious land-title issue was resolved by the British high courts, the settler project in BC stood on stolen land. He started on this path at age nineteen when he left his family home in Lerwick, Shetland and headed to Spences Bridge, BC to work in his uncle’s trade store. Within three years, he had moved in with a Nlaka’pamux woman, Lucy Antko (whom he later married). In addition to mastering Antko’s language, he participated regularly in her community’s hunting and fishing trips and community gatherings. This cultural immersion exposed him to the extreme racism and political struggle that the Nlaka’pamux and their neighbours faced daily. Teit worked much of what he learned into eleven major anthropological monographs as part of the most important collaborative and community-based research projects of the 20th century.42
Rose Charlie belongs to the Chehalis Band in the Stó:lō Nation, is a member of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and was named the Grand Chief of BC. Charlie founded the Indian Homemakers Association of British Columbia and the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations, and the BC Association of Non-status Indians. She helped restore Indian status to more than 16,000 women and 46,000 first-generation children of mixed ancestry. Rose also helped found two of the most important Native women’s groups in Canada: the National Association of Indian Rights for Indian Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In 1989, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from UBC and the Order of BC in 2003.44
In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government issued its Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (commonly known as the White Paper). This policy initiative, like many others before, aimed to quickly assimilate First Nations by abolishing the historical treaties and Indian Act (including Indian status), converting reserve lands to private property, and dismissing future discussions on Indigenous land claims.43
BC leaders, including Philip Paul (W̱SÁNEĆ), Rose Charlie (Stó:lō), and Don Moses (Nlaka’pamux), quickly mobilized, organizing the Kamloops Conference in November 1969. In attendance at this conference were representatives from 144 First Nations across the country. After several days of discussions, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) was formed. In 1970, the UBCIC issued A Declaration of Indian Rights: The BC Indian Position (commonly known as the Brown Paper), rejecting White Paper proposals. This declaration ultimately served as the cornerstone of the organization’s position on Aboriginal title and land claims.45 Today UBCIC, the First Nations Summit, and the BC Assembly of First Nations together form the First Nations Leadership Council to coordinate their work on Indigenous issues in the province.46
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, A Declaration of Indian Rights: the BC Indian Position Paper | bit.ly/2Kbkuae
In 1973, Frank Calder (Nisga’a) and the Nisga’a Nation brought an Aboriginal title case against BC to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). In Calder et al. v. Attorney General of British Columbia,48 a landmark SCC decision, the court ruled that Aboriginal title had existed at one point and confirmed that such title existed independent of colonial law. Although the court was split on whether Aboriginal title continued to exist, the decision paved the way for addressing Aboriginal title and future land claims in Canada.
As the federal government moved closer to constitutional reform, it appeared that Indigenous rights would remain outside its framework. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Indigenous leaders from BC served an instrumental role in Canada’s constitutional reform process. For example, to bring national and international attention to Indigenous rights at this critical juncture, UBCIC President George Manuel (Neskonlith) organized the Constitution Express in 1980-81 and chartered two trains bringing representatives from Vancouver to Ottawa (with some continuing to United Nations headquarters in New York City). Members of the Constitution Express were demanding that Indigenous rights be included in Canada’s patriated Constitution, resulting in the entrenchment of Section 35,49 which broadly recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal and treaty rights (and those that may be so acquired).50
With the consolidation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act, 1982, the federal government was forced to remove gender discrimination from the Indian Act in 1985 through Bill C-31, A Bill to Amend the Indian Act.
Before 1985, Debra Toporowski (Cowichan) could not be a member of the Cowichan Tribes because her Cowichan mother had married a Chinese Canadian man in Duncan. The Indian Act forced her mother to give up her status as a member of the Cowichan Nation. Through Bill C-31, Toporowski regained her Indian status, as did many Indigenous women and their children, and is today a member of Cowichan Tribes and is equally proud of her Chinese heritage.
Nonetheless, Bill C-31 was not successful in eliminating gender discrimination, and in many regards, this amendment created new forms of discrimination. Consequently, Indigenous women such as Sharon McIvor (Nlaka’pamux) have carried on the fight against such colonial forms of gender discrimination, which continue to contribute significantly to the marginalization and violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls throughout BC and Canada.
Land claims negotiations in the province commenced at long last with the creation of the British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC) in September 1993. A prime goal of the comprehensive land claims process in BC is to establish certainty or “predictability” concerning land ownership and jurisdiction to resolve conflicts over land and resources. Over its nearly three-decade history, three Final Agreements (involving seven First Nations) have been negotiated, including the 2009 Tsawwassen Final Agreement; 2011 Maa-nulth Final Agreement (Huu-ay-aht First Nations, Ka:’yu:k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nations, Toquaht Nation, Uchucklesaht Tribe, and Yuułu ił ath First Nation); and 2016 Tla’amin Final Agreement. Still, 90 percent of the 204 First Nations in BC remain without any treaty, reluctant to accept the small land allocations, restrictions to self government, or financial terms involved.
Although questions concerning Aboriginal title were beginning to move through BC’s treaty process in late 1993, there remained looming uncertainties, increased anxieties, and heightened tensions in years to follow. For example, in the summer of 1995, Sundancers held ceremony space at Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) in Secwépemc territory. Tension escalated when an American rancher/property owner requested that the Sundancers leave the property immediately, resulting in the deployment of an RCMP emergency response unit to Ts’Peten in early September. The militarized siege ended on September 17 when the land defenders exited the ceremonial space and were arrested immediately. During the trial, it was revealed that the RCMP actively engaged in a smear campaign with the expressed intent to secure public support for the provincial and federal governments and denounce Aboriginal title claims.51
Since the 1973 Calder decision, First Nations in BC have won ground-breaking Aboriginal title cases in Canada’s highest court. In the 1997 Delgamuukw52 decision, the SCC made another landmark decision on the question of Aboriginal title, providing important information and clarity on its definition, concerns about the province’s unlawful extinguishment of Aboriginal title, and recognized the importance of oral testimony. Through Delgamuukw, the SCC created a three-point test for Indigenous nations to prove Aboriginal title, which involved establishing sufficient, continuous, and exclusive evidence of territorial occupation. In the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision,53 the SCC affirmed that the Tsilhqot’in Nation held uninterrupted Aboriginal title to their territories (approximately 1,700 square kilometres). The importance of the Tsilhqot’in decision is that the SCC confirmed that recognition of Aboriginal title means that governments must move beyond the narrow duty-to-consult principle and engage in meaningful consultation with Indigenous groups that hold the right to occupy lands in order to decide on land use and manage the land and natural resources.
In 2015, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released and included 94 Calls to Action to eradicate systemic racism in Canadian society.54 In 2019, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released and also included a cross-sectoral approach to eliminating systemic racism and violence.55 These reports on the history of Indian residential schools combined with well-documented evidence of gendered violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA are illustrated in BC by the tragedies and racist impunity associated with BC’s Highway of Tears and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The reports reveal the sorrowful legacies of settler colonialism, their perpetual and enduring violence cycles, while clearly identifying recommendations concerning redress and justice.
The BC provincial government passed legislation in October 2019 to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, formally titled Bill 41 – 2019: Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.56 The enactment of Bill 41 was indeed an important first step for this government, which had yet to squarely address its historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and its unwillingness to respect and uphold the political, legal, and human rights of Indigenous peoples throughout the province. A few months after the adoption of Bill 41, however, the province authorized the RCMP to once again invade Wet’suwet’en territory.
Although Wet’suwet’en land defence dates back many decades, the current movement is primarily rooted in Wet’suwet’en Clan opposition to pipeline projects beginning in the early 2000s. In recent years, corporations, courts, and governments have responded with injunctions and state violence, including RCMP assaults on Wet’suwet’en land defenders in 2019 and 2020. This violent state aggression has led to an outpouring of national and international support (involving solidarity actions in more than 70 cities worldwide) in 2020.57 This battle is but one example of an Indigenous nation in a contest for their land and livelihood. Wet’suwet’en land defence is about much more than protecting the land from the environmental threats of industry. It is about preserving the yintah (a Wet’suwet’en expression for “territory”) that Wet’suwet’en people belong to and are one with, which has sustained the people since time immemorial.58
Bill 41 – 2019: Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Province of British Columbia | bit.ly/3r1vojj
2 Assembly of First Nations, Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, 2018); Robert J. Miller et al., eds. Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Kent McNeil, “The Doctrine of Discovery Reconsidered: Reflecting on Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies, by Robert J Miller, Jacinta Ruru, Larissa Behrendt, and Tracey Lindberg and Reconciling Sovereignties: Aboriginal Nations and Canada, by Felix Hoehn,” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 53, no. 2 (2016): 699–728.↩
4 J. Richard Nokes, Almost a Hero: The Voyages of John Meares, R.N., to China, Hawaii and the Northwest Coast (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1998); and, most recently, John Price, “Relocating Yuquot: The Indigenous Pacific and Transpacific Migrations,” BC Studies 204 (Winter 2019/20): 21–44. ↩
6 For the most recent analysis of the Oregon Treaty, see Nick Claxton and John Price, “Whose Land Is It?” BC Studies 204 (January 2020): 115–38. An early analysis is Walter N. Gage, “The Oregon Treaty of 1846,” Canadian Historical Review 27, no. 4 (1946): 349–67; and Daniel Clayton’s account in “The Creation of Imperial Space,” 327–50. Further details can be found in his book, Islands of Truth, chap. 12. ↩
11 See Daniel Marshall, Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2018); and Marie Elliot, Gold in British Columbia: Discovery to Confederation (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2020). ↩
12 Barry M. Gough, Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846–90 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1984); and Chris Arnett, The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849–1863 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1999). ↩
24 Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, (Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), accessed October 1, 2020, bit.ly/34QuAUV; see also Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), at bit.ly/3mWTyZc ↩
37 J.A.J. McKenna and R. McBride, Report of the Royal Commission of Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia, (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1916), accessed November 7, 2020, bit.ly/3nYnVQ2 ↩
55 Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Ottawa: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, 2019), accessed October 1, 2020, bit.ly/3pwTMaY ↩
57 “Timeline for Campaign: A Timeline,” Unist’ot’en: Heal the People, Heal the Land, accessed November 6, 2020, https://bit.ly/2WRVasy. “History and Timeline,” Gidimt’en Yintah Access, accessed November 6, 2020, bit.ly/37VrGQP ↩