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The Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole is seen after being raised in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii in 2013.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

For more than a century, the Haida Nation has disputed the Crown’s dominion over the land, air and waters of Haida Gwaii, a lush archipelago roughly 150 kilometres off the coast of British Columbia.

More than 20 years ago, the First Nation went to the Supreme Court of Canada with a lawsuit that says the islands belong to the Haida, part of a wider legal and political effort to resolve scores of land claims in the province. That case has been grinding toward a conclusion that the B.C. government was increasingly convinced would end in a Haida victory.

An agreement signed on April 14 between the province and the Haida has ended a long period of legal uncertainty over who owns the one million hectares of land on Haida Gwaii. It’s also a key moment in the national effort at reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

The province has now acknowledged Haida Gwaii belongs to the Haida. It will introduce legislation this spring that will relinquish title of Crown lands, which make up about half the land base. But what that means, precisely, remains opaque. There is no model for what the two parties have done. Ownership has been clarified without first establishing the governance structure attached to Haida title. The broad agreement looks to be sound, but the province needs to act expeditiously to fill in the blanks.

Some things have been predetermined. The parties agree that Aboriginal title will not affect anyone’s private property, nor local government jurisdiction and bylaws on Haida Gwaii. The pact also says public services including highways, airports, ferry terminals, health care and schools will not be affected. Residents will continue to receive municipal services and pay property taxes in the same way they do today.

With those important assurances in place, there are still major land-use decisions looming, over logging rights and the management of protected areas. The two parties expect the transition will take two years, or longer, as they sit down to work out the details.

B.C.’s historic failure to secure treaties in most of the province has led to conflict, and the unresolved land question has dampened economic development for Indigenous communities and the province as a whole. For more than 30 years, the BC Treaty Commission has offered the means for modern settlements, but in that time has secured just seven treaties.

Today, 94 per cent of the land in B.C. is provincial Crown land, subject to Indigenous title claims. Virtually every one of those claims is complicated by overlaps with neighbouring First Nations. On this front, the Haida case is unique. A 2004 Supreme Court of Canada decision found the Haida’s claim to title to their traditional territories is strong, in part because their geographic isolation means there are no other nations seeking title to any part of their lands.

And the Haida have an established government in place, with the 50-year-old Council of the Haida Nation that works with hereditary chiefs, and a constitution. They have co-managed land-use decisions with the province since 2007.

So the Haida title agreement is not a template for the rest of the province. What does have broader relevance is how the Haida and the B.C. government have together embraced an incremental approach where they can resolve issues chapter by chapter, allowing progress without awaiting the conclusion of exhaustive and costly litigation or the glacial pace of B.C.’s treaty process.

The agreement concludes one important question and offers some certainty over the land base that has so long eluded most of British Columbia.

There are some difficult issues ahead. The title case is still heading to court to deal with the Haida’s claim against the federal government for the surrounding air space and the marine environment – including Dixon Entrance, half of the Hecate Strait and halfway to Vancouver Island. The Haida are still suing B.C. for damages, because they argue much of the land base has been irretrievably despoiled through logging and other exploitation under the province’s watch.

To resolve a conflict that has stretched on for generations, the two parties have demonstrated goodwill. The alternative would have been to wait for the courts to impose a solution, or to wait until every detail can be resolved in a treaty.

Sometimes, however, a step toward that destination is progress worth celebrating.

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