Canada’s high court upholds aboriginal title

First nations across British Columbia are celebrating a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada on June 26 that recognizes aboriginal title to their traditional territories outside reserves. The court upheld the Tsilhqot'in Nation's claim to lands in the Nemiah Valley, some 160 miles north of Vancouver, rejecting the provincial government's argument that aboriginal title should be restricted to actual settlement sites and other places frequently occupied by semi-nomadic native peoples. Joe Alphonse, chief of the Tsilhqot'in Nation, said the ruling is a victory in a struggle that had its roots in deadly conflict with a wave of Gold Rush settlers during the 1860s. He said the communities need more control over resources to support more people living on reserves. "We didn't fight in this case to separate from Canada," Alphonse told a news conference in Vancouver. "We fought in this case to get recognized, to be treated as equals in a meaningful way."

Overturning a ruling of the BC Court of Appeal, the high court found that "[t]he doctrine of terra nullius never applied in Canada." The government still has powers over native lands, the court found, but only if it can reconcile aboriginal interests with wider public purposes. These can include mining and logging projects, and has potential implications for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the BC coastal community of Kitimat. (Surrey Leader, Globe & Mail, Canadian Press, June 26)

Hours after the high court decision, the Tahltan Central Council announced its intention to prepare an aboriginal title and rights claim against the province of British Columbia and Fortune Minerals Ltd for lands slated for the controversial Arctos Anthracite Coal project in the Mt. Klappan area of Tahltan territory. (Digital Journal, June 26)