Williams Lake First Nation government staff are anticipated to return to work Monday, Jan. 25. (Rebecca Dyok photo)

Court orders new hearing over Williams Lake First Nation’s century-old land dispute

A three-judge panel unanimously set aside a 2018 finding by the Specific Claims Tribunal

The Federal Court of Appeal has ordered a tribunal to reconsider its ruling upholding a century-old sale of land from a British Columbia First Nation to a now-defunct railway.

A three-judge panel unanimously set aside a 2018 finding by the Specific Claims Tribunal that determined the Williams Lake First Nation did not prove the lands were wrongfully transferred.

The decision posted online Wednesday says the tribunal “failed to give adequate consideration” to the Crown’s fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the First Nation when land was sold in 1915 to the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.

Writing for the appeal panel, Justice Mary Gleason says the tribunal correctly applied the importance of fiduciary duty in an earlier decision related to another First Nation.

The ruling calls on the tribunal to “meaningfully justify its departure” from that earlier finding in reaching its decision against the Williams Lake First Nation.

At issue is the sale in 1915 of 1.76 hectares of land to the railway for $44.35, even though the site had been provisionally reserved for the Williams Lake First Nation and despite requests from Indigenous leaders that another parcel of land be provided, rather than a cash payment.

The decision says there was confusion in 1915 on the roles of Canada and B.C. in respect to the railway’s request to purchase the land.

“Particularly in light of this confusion, it is possible that Canada might have been able to obtain a better result for the band, had it kept its duty of minimal impairment at the forefront.”

Determining whether the options of either an easement or purchase of replacement lands were realistic and alternatives Canada should have at least tried to pursue will require a detailed analysis by the tribunal of the nuanced historical record, the decision says.

The Canadian Press

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