The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized a First Nation’s title to a specific tract of land, a historic decision applauded by the Okanagan Indian Band.
Thursday's unanimous 8-0 decision, which overturned an appeal court's ruling, will essentially make it easier for First Nations to establish title over lands that were traditionally used for hunting, fishing and other activities.
“Today’s decision should serve as a reminder to all levels of government that the land issue in British Columbia must be dealt with,” said Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band, “The Aboriginal Peoples of B.C. have been waiting a very long time.”
Chief Louis says this decision hits home and will hopefully assist in some outstanding issues right here in the Okanagan.
The Okanagan Indian Band currently has legislation before the courts regarding the Browns Creek area that was on hold pending this decision and Louis feels it will make a difference in the outcome.
“We all know that the majority of lands in British Columbia are un-ceded, non-treaty lands so therefore there is a very clear question of whether or not the province actually has title to what they claim,” says Louis.
The OIB states that in 1910 the Chiefs of the Okanagan, Shuswap and Thompson nations presented Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier with a letter outlining grievances and a desire to settle issues which, for 114 years, have remained unsettled.
“It brings up a much broader question and goes across all of British Columbia where it asks that specific question. Show us your bill of sale, show us your title, show us how you actually achieved that claim to that land."
He now hopes this decision will help all parties involved move forward, towards reconciliation.
“Without resolution, this issue will not simply go away,” said Louis, “now is the time to solve it, not in 10 generations. The onus is back onto the province. They have chosen to ignore these court cases and they have done so at their own peril and this is the outcome of their actions.”
Louis also says the First Nations groups now have the ability to look at other options and make larger claims to their historical lands.
“It is up to them to finally come to the table in a honourable way to deal with these outstanding issues or the other option is for First Nations group to go out and seek a declaration of title, meaning further litigation but in a much stronger position than we were in, in the past,” says Louis.
The Okanagan Indian Band is comprised of six geographically disconnected reserves spread throughout ancestral lands with an office at the north end of the Okanagan Lake.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the UBCIC and ONA said "This decision puts an end to the legal oppression of Indigenous Peoples and enforces our fundamental human rights and freedoms."
Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band said "This country, this province, have been built on our peoples' poverty. BC's laws must change and we are ready and willing to work to make the necessary changes. We will benefit from our lands, according to our laws."