Large pieces of Stanley Park, Galiano Island and Saltspring Island are being claimed by a small Indian band that has largely been ignored in British Columbia, although its main village once came under fire from the British Navy.
In a notice of claim filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Chief Raymond Wilson and a group he identifies as the Hwlitsum First Nation seek the return of key lands and financial compensation for loss of access to what it claims as its traditional territory.
The claim says the band was essentially driven into exile in 1862 when a British gunboat bombarded a village site at Lamalcha Bay after alleged native attacks on settlers.
"The destruction of the village was an unprovoked and unlawful attack constituting both a war crime and a breach of express trust," says the notice of claim.
Jeffrey Rath, an Alberta-based lawyer representing the Hwlitsum, said the band was displaced from its land by the British attack and subsequently its members became absorbed by other coastal bands. The federal and provincial governments do not recognize them.
But Mr. Rath said the Hwlitsum never ceased to exist – and now they are stepping forward to reassert their tribal identity and make a claim to land.
"The case is about a First Nation who the government of Canada and the government of British Columbia have been ignoring for the last 150 years, because they are the heirs to some of the most expensive title on the West Coast, including a significant portion of Stanley Park," Mr. Rath said Monday.
"We have documented evidence of the current chief's great grandparents having been driven out by gunpoint, where their family had been in aboriginal occupation since time immemorial."
He said the band lays claim to all of Galiano Island, half of Saltspring Island, land on the Fraser River, most of Stanley Park and Deadman Island, a four-hectare island just off the park's seawall in Vancouver Harbour. The federal government has long used the small island as a naval reserve.
Mr. Rath said his clients recognize that much of the land the Hwilitsum claim as traditional territory is now in private hands and the band is not seeking return of that property.
He said the court action was initiated after the B.C. government rejected a demand by the Hwlitsum that the band be recognized as rightful owners of Brunswick Point, land in Delta the province is planning to sell.
Mr. Rath said the band went to court this fall seeking an injunction to block the sale, but the province subsequently promised to hold off on the transaction until a court hearing in March.
In an e-mail statement, the B.C. Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation noted that the Hwlitsum "is not a Band recognized under the federal Indian Act."
The statement said the standing of the applicants will be tested at the court hearing in March.
"Regarding properties in Delta cited in the Notice of Civil Claim, the Province has a long-term plan to sell 450 acres of Crown land on Brunswick Point. However, there are a number of technical and legal issues the Province is addressing before selling all the properties, unrelated to the litigation filed by the Hwlitsum group," the statement said. "The Province believes it has met its obligations to consult and accommodate and is moving forward with disposition of Brunswick Point lands."
Patricia MacNeil, a City of Vancouver spokeswoman, said in an e-mail the city is aware of the lawsuit and is currently reviewing it. Federal officials could not be immediately reached for comment.