Whose Land Is It?

In January 2020, UVic’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE) hosted the roundtable discussion "Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia". The talk took place in the Ceremonial Hall of the First Peoples' House and was based on Nick XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton and John Price’s article “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia” (BC Studies 204, January 2020), and included words from W̱SÁNEĆ Elder, Dr. John Elliot, and Professor Rebecca Johnson, Faculty of Law. Below is an abstract of the presentation:

First Nations, in what is today called British Columbia (BC), have displayed a deep attachment to the land, derived at least in part from organic concepts of being, in which people do not own the earth but rather belong to it. This attachment to the land has manifested itself in many ways – maintaining customary, collective notions over resources and lands, respecting and preserving ceremonial rights, and long and tenacious battles to defend Indigenous sovereignty in the face of settler colonialism. In the courts, these issues have been mainly argued as questions of “title”, determining ownership based on the liberal concept of private property. BC and Canadian courts have increasingly recognized “Aboriginal title”, yet they continue to assert, as does the Crown (Canadian and BC governments), that this title is subordinate to Crown sovereignty.

Highlighting concepts of landholding of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Mowachat-Muchalaht peoples, as reflected in their respective languages, we argue that what is at stake is not “title” but rather “sovereignty”. We suggest that First Nations’ belief in their sovereign rights is the foundation for two centuries of resistance to colonialism in this province. We further contend that the Crown’s persistent assertion that it holds sovereignty based on the 1846 Oregon Treaty, as articulated in the courts over a number of decades, is a re-imposition of settler colonialism given that the 1846 treaty is based entirely on the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept that has been thoroughly discredited. The case for settler or Crown sovereignty is further undermined by the fact that the BC government refused for 140 years to negotiate treaties despite ongoing Indigenous demands, a trend that arguably continues to this day. We believe that recognition of Indigenous sovereignty over BC is now urgent if First Nations are to achieve justice, if reconciliation is to have any chance at all, and if we want to collectively achieve climate justice.