Tsilhqot’in Nation wins historic title case in Supreme Court

The Tsilhqot’in Nation has won a historic case that has the potential to silence an ongoing debate: what is the meaning of ‘title’?

Chief Roger William after the historic decision.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation has won a historic case that has the potential to silence an ongoing debate: what is the meaning of ‘title’ in regards to First Nations traditional territory?

The battle began in 1983 when B.C. granted a logging licence on land southwest of Williams Lake in the province’s Interior that served as the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s traditional hunting land outside the boundaries of the reserve. Lower courts disagreed on whether the semi-nomadic Tsilhqot’in Nation, a group of six aboriginal bands, had title to lands. The Supreme Court said they do and laid out for the first time how to determine whether a First Nation can prove title.

The unanimous ruling granted the Tsilhqot’in First Nation title to a 1,700-square-kilometre area of traditional land outside its reserve, marking the end of a decades-long battle. But it also clarified major issues such as how to prove aboriginal title and when consent is required from aboriginal groups, which will affect negotiations on major projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Hailed as a ‘game changer,’ First Nations across Canada celebrated the ruling, and Chief Roger William of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation was ‘ecstatic.’ The Tsilhqot’n First Nation has been fighting the case for more than two decades. “This decision is such a huge, most important decision that I’ve been a part of,” said William.

The decision, being the first of its kind, has set a precedent and will now certainly impact similar court cases across the country. The B.C. and federal governments have both opposed the Tsilhqot’in’s claims for aboriginal title. Suzanne Anton, B.C.’s minister of justice, said the province is “committed to continue to work together to make sure we all have healthy, thriving communities both socially and economically.”

Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a written statement the Conservative government believes “the best way to resolve outstanding aboriginal rights and title claims is through negotiated settlements that balance the interests of all Canadians.”

While the decision definitely increases First Nation’s leverage at the table, others say it does not bar major economic development. The ruling stated that provincial and federal governments may still regulate economic activity like forestry practices on aboriginal title lands as long as legislators win consent of the affected group, or can show “a pressing and substantial” public purpose for activity that must also be compatible with the Crown’s obligation to act in good faith for the benefit of aboriginal peoples.