A popular British Columbia backcountry trail known for challenging hikers is slated to become part of a treaty agreement in principle between the federal and provincial governments and two Vancouver Island First Nations.
Portions of the 75-kilometre West Coast Trail and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are included in the proposed land, cash and self-government agreement signed Friday at a ceremony in Victoria.
Premier John Horgan signed the agreement on behalf of the province of B.C., saying he is a witness to history after more than 20 years of negotiations.
“It is truly a special day,” said Horgan. “This will be a day I’m hopeful you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren about. For all of you who came here today, let’s cherish this special moment.”
The treaty still must be ratified by all parties, but it provides the Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations of southwest Vancouver Island with about $60 million in cash transfers, more than 8,000 hectares of Crown, reserve and national park lands and self-government rights.
Horgan said much of the Pacheedaht traditional lands are within his provincial riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca.
The agreement in principle includes the return of some West Coast Trail lands, considered one of the top hiking trails in the world, and Parks Canada and the First Nations have agreed to preserve the trail experience, which will include a right-of-way for portions of the trail that cross the treaty lands.
In 1973, Parks Canada added the West Coast Trail to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve despite objections from the Ditidaht and Pacheedaht whose use of the land and access to the ocean was restricted as a result.
The trail forms part of the land and water routes used for trade and travel by First Nations for hundreds of years. Indigenous villages and camps were established in the area before foreign ships arrived on the west coast of Vancouver Island more than 200 years ago.
Horgan said the long-time stewards of the West Coast Trail will ensure it remains accessible to everybody.
“The West Coast Trail will continue to be an outstanding place for British Columbians, Canadians and people around the world to come and experience the West Coast as it truly is meant to be,” he said. “The Pacheedaht and the Ditidaht have been in and around the West Coast Trail for thousands of years. You can’t find better guides than the people who’ve been there forever.”
Ditidaht Chief Robert Joseph said treaty talks have been ongoing since the early 1990s, but he recalled as a young boy in the 1960s elders talking about their land rights.
“We’re finally here,” he said. “This took way too long.”
Pacheedaht Chief Jeff Jones said it has not been an easy journey but after 23 years a land-claims treaty is almost a reality.