The Supreme Court of Canada’s reinstatement of a tribunal ruling that the Williams Lake Indian Band is owed federal government compensation for the theft of its village 150 years ago is “very good news” for everyone, says the band’s chief.
“All Canadians should be applauding this decision because it was a wrong against Indigenous people that’s finally been acknowledged,” said Chief Ann Louie. “And it should move us toward reconciliation and building a strong future together.”
At some point in the 1860s, settlers, in direct contravention of Crown law, displaced members of the Williams Lake First Nation out of their village in what is now downtown Williams Lake and forced them to establish a new settlement elsewhere.
The site was home to a thriving Indigenous community with its own church, several longhouses and a burial ground. Some band members starved to death as a result of the displacement, Louie said.
While negotiations on compensation for the band have yet to begin, Louie says it will be seeking $150 million, the maximum reimbursement allowed under the federal Specific Land Claims Tribunal.
But this decision means more than upholding the rule of law in Canada by recognizing injustice against one First Nations band, says UBC anthropology professor Charles Menzies. He said it sets a precedent for future specific land claims across the country, especially in locations where colonial cities and towns were established.
“People shouldn’t be surprised that there is a cost involved to having their town [on unceded First Nations land]. A lot of towns and cities throughout British Columbia are on the best known places to have human habitation,” Menzies said.
Although compensation in this case is a federal responsibility, municipalities and the province should be proactive in advance of future claims on the lands they sit on, Menzies said. “Rather than making First Nations pool all of their resources and try to get money raised — millions of dollars — to go to court, is there not something we can do in the meantime?”
Types of land claims
Unlike modern treaty negotiations in B.C. where First Nations, the province and the federal government negotiate the return of unceded lands to First Nations control, specific land claims can only be compensated financially by the federal government. Louie says Williams Lake Indian Band is one of four First Nations that make up the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, which is in stage five of six in the treaty process after 22 years.
Comprehensive land claims, such as the successful claim by the Tsilhqot'in First Nation in 2014, deal with Indigenous land title and rights over larger portions of land, wherein First Nations must prove long-term, continuous occupation at the time of their sovereignty prior to colonization.
Specific claims “generally in B.C., are related to failures in the reserve creation process or in managing First Nations monies,” said Leah Pence, one of the lawyers representing the Williams Lake Indian Band in this case.
‘Our people were treated like cattle’
The Williams Lake Indian Band pursued a specific claim based on the Crown’s failure to protect the First Nation’s village from settlement. After the band’s specific land claim was denied by the former department of Indian Affairs in 1993, the band pursued its case at the now-defunct Indian Specific Claims Commission in the late 1990s.
Established by the federal government to help settle specific land claims, the commission sided with the band. However, the commission only had the power to make non-binding recommendations, and the federal government ignored its compensation recommendation.
In 2012, the band again sought compensation, this time through the new Specific Claims Tribunal. Established in 2008 to replace the commission and deal with pre-Confederation claims, the tribunal had the power to compel government to provide compensation. Williams Lake elders, including Louie’s grandmother, Agnes Anderson, a great-granddaughter to Chief William who was a hereditary chief at the time, testified to the impact that land theft had on their community.
“My grandmother even said during her testimony that our people were treated like cattle because they moved us wherever they wanted to,” said Louie, adding it was the elders who convinced the band to continue to pursue the claim.
But instead of following the tribunal ruling, the federal government took the case to the Federal Court of Appeal, which overturned the tribunal’s ruling. The band pursued the case to the Supreme Court, which reinstated the tribunal decision earlier this month.
It’s unclear when negotiations will begin or how much financial compensation, including legal costs, the band will receive. The process could take up to four years if the government demands a hearing, Pence said.
This is reconciliation
In addition to rectifying an injustice, the Supreme Court decision opens the door for other First Nations to make similar claims through the tribunal, which can now do its work without threat of continual court intervention, Pence said.
“It means these claims can be resolved in a faster, more fair, more efficient, more just way,” she said.
“A lot of First Nations have been waiting to see what will happen with this decision, and for those especially in British Columbia who have claims about breaches of obligation related to their old village sites and places they used to be, this is really an opening to say you don’t have to have a finalized reserve, you don’t have to prove title to be able to show that the Crown had obligations to protect your village lands,” Pence said.
“People probably wonder what reconciliation is all about,” Louie said. “It’s standing side by side to ensure wrongs are rectified. I don’t think anybody would appreciate it if all of a sudden Williams Lake Band packed up and moved into the town [of Williams Lake] and kicked them out.”
Louie added that most non-Indigenous people don't understand that the financial compensation the band receives will help boost the local economy overall, as most money will be spent in the city of Williams Lake. This misunderstanding is one of a long list of misconceptions non-Indigenous people have about land claims, says Antonia Mills, a First Nations studies professor at the University of Northern British Columbia.
“Settler society tends to think that [they have] the right to take over everything, that Indigenous people have no rights to the land,” she said, adding even after a land claim is settled there’s a lot of work left to do to ensure a mutual understanding, respect and spirit of collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.