Skip to main content

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark admits that a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on First Nations land rights was a legal loss for her government.The Globe and Mail

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark admits that a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on First Nations land rights was a legal loss for her government.

Ms. Clark travelled to the remote Nemiah Valley southwest of Williams Lake on Wednesday, becoming the first B.C. Premier to meet with Tsilhqot'in First Nation leaders on their traditional lands.

While there, she signed agreements committing the province and the Tsilhqot'in to start negotiations making the recent landmark court win for the Chilcotin-area aboriginals work for all British Columbians.

The Premier said the decision has presented everyone with a new opportunity and a new future.

"Technically, on a legal basis, we lost," Ms. Clark said. "But I don't see it that way."

"The Supreme Court of Canada has set out a fork in the road for us here, and I am determined that – in looking at the decision – we can embrace it and we can make it something where everybody in British Columbia wins," she said as she prepared to meet the Tsilhqot'in leaders.

The court decision in June was the first time in Canadian history a First Nation was granted title to such a vast piece of land.

"I think this, in presenting us with a new opportunity for reconciliation with First Nations, can be something that we're all going to win from," Ms. Clark said. "Aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike."

Many legal, aboriginal and government experts suggested the high-court decision shifts the balance of power on land use and land rights issues in favour of aboriginals, signalling new rules for resource developments on areas considered aboriginal territory.

But Ms. Clark said after meeting last week with Tsilhqot'in leaders, she sensed a willingness from both sides to work together on economic and social issues in spite of the court decision.

"I think this court decision has created a new space for understanding between us," she said. "It's changed the landscape.

"It's going to set us on a new path."

The letter of understanding also maps out plans to redress a 150-year-old wound that has yet to heal for the Tsilhqot'in over the hangings of six chiefs during the Chilcotin War of 1864, in which 20 British Columbians died.

Tsilhqot'in National Government spokesman Joe Alphonse said last week that Ms. Clark's commitment to redress the hangings of their chiefs inspired the leaders to consider the future.

He called the meeting with Ms. Clark positive, significant and powerful, saying the Premier also committed to make an official visit to Tsilhqot'in territory Oct. 26 to participate in annual celebrations marking the 1864 hangings.

The Chilcotin War is known as Western Canada's deadliest attack by aboriginals on non-aboriginal settlers. It started in April 1864, and by the end of May, 19 road builders and a farmer were dead.

The aboriginals, fearing an influx of settlers into their territory, put up an armed resistance to workers who were attempting to build a road through their territory into the gold fields of the Cariboo.

A militia army of more than 100 people was sent into the area, but the almost inaccessible terrain made the task nearly impossible.

After three months, the area's police chief invited the aboriginals to a meeting, where the First Nations – believing they were being summoned for peace talks – were arrested.

Five were hanged in Quesnel and another in New Westminster.

"They were tried as murderers," Mr. Alphonse said. "We felt betrayed. It's a huge part of the history of Canada and nobody knows about it."

Ms. Clark said the letter of understanding calls on the province and Tsilhqot'in to jointly consider proper redress for the hangings.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct