A court case with historic and revolutionary implications for Canada is underway in Vancouver. The Nuchatlaht, a West Coast First Nation, are taking the BC government to the BC Supreme Court to claim their territory.
This is the first time in Canada that a title case has taken place in a jurisdiction that has passed legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite passing this law more than two years ago, the provincial government has not supported the Nuchatlaht Nation’s efforts to reclaim and manage their own lands. Instead, the NDP government pursued a status quo — and frankly, shameful — approach that forced the Nuchatlaht Nation to take their title case to court.
Nuchatlaht rulers have been clear that winning this title case will allow them to properly exercise their sovereignty over everything from maintaining ancient forests to housing their people. This case is about justice for the Nuchatlaht and could set an important precedent for other native title cases across the country, completely changing the dynamics surrounding resource disputes in the future.
As leading environmental organizations, Stand.earth, Sierra Club BC and the Wilderness Committee unequivocally support the Nuchatlaht. Here’s why.
First and foremost, we support aboriginal title and rights because it’s the right thing to do. Addressing the racist underpinnings of this country and the ongoing colonialism that continues here must be a top priority for all of us.
For all its rhetoric about respecting Indigenous rights and its own UNDRIP legislation, Prime Minister John Horgan’s government chooses to pursue shameful arguments to resist Nuchatlaht’s claim – even going so far as to Argue that the Nuchatlaht abandoned their territory on Nootka Island, located off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
While Canada considers the impacts of genocide, we cannot allow any government to use its own history of forced displacement as an excuse to avoid accountability.
On Nootka Island, ongoing colonialism takes many forms. Along with the displacement of the Nuchatlaht people is the depletion of key species like herring and salmon, and over 1,000 kilometers of logging roads and vast clearcuts. The latter is being led largely by forestry giant Western Forest Products, which, along with the provincial and federal governments, is a defendant in the lawsuit.
This case also echoes our collective ability to deal with other crucial issues such as the climate and biodiversity crises. On the West Coast and across the country, justice for ecosystems in a changing climate demands justice for the people who have always been here and the return of land to them.
After more than a century of destruction, provincial mismanagement and corporate greed, calls for better management have gone unanswered. And so, the Nuchatlaht continue their legal action not only to recover their lands and waters, but also their authority as stewards. The Nuchatlaht leaders’ vision for their territory is the same one they have maintained for thousands of years: to manage for abundance and sharing.
This vision is clear about the connection between forests and salmon, and that managing them together, for abundance, is the solution after a century of overexploitation of both.
As Nuchatlaht House president Archie Little says, “We have always had great wealth, and we have managed it well, for everyone — if we cut down all the trees, we were poor, and if we caught all the fish, we were poor, so we managed our territory of abundance.
In addition to advancing this title deal, the Nuchatlahts are also developing a visionary “salmon parks” initiative. Salmon parks are watershed-based designations that protect the streams and forests that make up salmon habitat. While federal and provincial government policies have sent most salmon populations into a tailspin, Nuchatlaht has developed a solution that will benefit all communities, not just their own nation.
The job of our governments should be to support these types of Indigenous-led nature-based initiatives, not block them. Instead, lawyers for the BC government began their statements in court during the first week of the trial in double over their arguments against Nuchatlaht title, including trying to cast doubt on Nuchatlaht’s identity as a nation and downplaying the genocidal reality of land theft.
Not only are these claims false, but they are also totally out of step with the rhetoric that British Columbia and Canada are publicly adopting in support of reconciliation and Indigenous rights.
As environmental organizations and residents of British Columbia, we have a responsibility to speak out against our governments when they act dishonourably and jeopardize a just future for communities.
We encourage everyone to watch the Nuchatlaht title case closely, support the Nuchatlaht Nation, and seek ways to support Indigenous title and rights across Canada.