It was a 135-year-old letter to the editor that helped persuade a tribunal the land that now makes up the downtown core of the City of Williams Lake was unjustly taken from natives.
The decision by the Specific Claims Tribunal could bring the Williams Lake Indian Band a federal payment of up to $150-million in compensation for the loss of thousands of hectares of land along the Fraser River. The ruling last week comes as a stunning setback to the federal government, which rejected the claim three times before the band took the case to the tribunal.
Chief Anne Louie said the ruling that the band deserves compensation is "a great victory" that her people have been pursuing for generations.
"It's been a tough road," Chief Louie said. "It's very exciting news. It's been a long time coming."
She noted that the battle began in 1879, when Chief William wrote to the British Colonist, the leading newspaper in the colony of B.C., "begging for land" for the tribe and appealing for justice.
"I am an Indian chief and my people are threatened by starvation," states Chief William in the letter, which became evidence in the hearings. "The white men have taken all the land and all the fish. A vast country was ours. It is all gone."
The letter described how prospectors and early settlers were pushing band members off their traditional village sites.
"The land on which my people lived for five hundred years was taken by a white man; he has piles of wheat and herds of cattle. We have nothing – not an acre," Chief William wrote.
"Another white man has enclosed the graves in which the ashes of our fathers rest, and we may live to see their bones turned over by the plough."
Chief Louie said the band waited so long for justice that Chief William's great granddaughter, a respected elder in the community, died just last year.
Ken MacInnis, a spokesman for the small town of Williams Lake, said the ruling won't lead to the transfer of any city land to the band because the federal government is responsible for the settlement.
"My understanding is that the City won't be on the hook for compensation or [have to] give up any lands," Mr. MacInnis, said in an e-mail.
Michelle Perron, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, said the government has not yet decided how to respond to the recent ruling.
"We are currently reviewing the court's decision to assess the implications and next steps," she said in an e-mail.
The Specific Claims Tribunal, which operates like a court under the direction of a judge, was set up by the government in 2008 to deal with claims outside the treaty process. It can award compensation of up to $150-million. The amount of the settlement is to be determined in future compensation proceedings.
In his decision, Justice Harry Slade concluded the band established its claim by showing that the federal government failed to set aside the land as reserves, as it was obliged to do, in the early 1800s.
"The claim arises out of events dating back to colonial times in British Columbia," wrote Justice Slade, who had put before him government records, and notes written by early missionaries, as well as Chief William's letter.
Father Charles Grandidier, head of Catholic St. Joseph's Mission, wrote in 1880 to the government to complain that an early settler had been registering for himself land that band members had long lived on.
He said the settler, named Davidson, asked the local chief for permission to build a cabin, then "had all the land occupied by the Indians recorded as a pre-emption claim."
"The Chief was permitted to live in his cabin near the chapel, but the Indians were driven away," wrote Father Grandidier. "The Chief was offered twenty dollars by Davidson, but he refused to part with his father's land and rejected the money … Shortly after the other parts of the valley were pre-empted by other parties, and the Indians were driven away to the top of the hills, where cultivation is out of the question."