Looking out from the eastern slope of the Potato Range down over Chilko Lake and further to the south into the Nemiah Valley with its stunning mountain backdrop, it is easy appreciate why the first people to call this land home hold it as sacred. It is here that the wild sparse Chilcotin plateau meets the rugged, daunting Coast Mountains, where wild horses roam with grizzlies beneath majestic gnarled Douglas fir trees.
Last month’s Supreme Court decision to acknowledge Aboriginal title to this homeland of the Tsilhqot’in people is the result of a protracted struggle over decades waged by the six bands that live, love, and grow old here. The decision is of paramount importance to these people in their ongoing fight against the currents threatening their survival in the settlement project that is Canada.
Less appreciated by Canadians is the debt that we all now hold to these first peoples who, in essence, fought this struggle for the protection of land that living beings rely on as lifeblood.
In an era when virtually all serious independent scientists concur, and when the CIA, the World Bank, the major insurance companies of the world, and countless other international bodies—none of whom are renowned as green Earth champions—agree that the climate is changing, and dangerously so, it is of incredible fortune for us all that stewardship of the land has been formally put back in the hands of those who know it best.
The implication of Aboriginal title to land that has been their sanctuary for time long before the arrival of the Europeans, while perhaps not absolute, at the very least suggests that genuine consultation must occur prior to development, such as would be the case, for instance, in the building of a pipeline, the digging of a mine, or a proposal to log a given tract, to name but three examples.
Presumably, the decision with respect to Tsilhqot’in land can and will be extrapolated to other areas around the province and the country. With land claims having now been a simmering topic for decades, the Supreme Court has finally provided some clarity to the various stakeholders involved in these processes around the country.
Given that environmental concerns have been at the forefront of many aboriginal struggles (certainly in the case of the Tsilhqot’in and the conflict over the perversely name Prosperity mine, as well as for the majority of the peoples along the proposed Northern Gateway corridor to the north), and given that climate change is clearly upon us, creating an urgency that is perhaps unparalleled in human history, it is timely that aboriginal title is now being legally recognized.
The environment has become a mainstream issue for many Canadians. Nevertheless, despite the glut of attention and information, we have been remarkably—and disastrously—ineffectual in attempts to actually address the problem. Emissions continue to rise and consumption of resources proceeds unabated. The apparent inability, perhaps better termed unwillingness, to take hard measures creates a precarious situation threatening the ruin of life on the planet, not the least of which is our own species.
While the science behind such conclusions has been robust and repeatedly demonstrated, industry has forcefully worked to counteract the evidence, whether through public relations schemes, co-optation of potential opposition, financial incentives, legal initiatives, and so on, almost invariably with the blessing of the various levels of government. Perhaps more insidious, however, has been the maintenance of an overwhelming and seemingly insatiable appetite for consumption on the part of the general population. Without a governor on this demand, it apparently will not stop, despite the very dire consequences.
The title granted the Tsilhqot’in is not a panacea for any of this but it does provide a strong check in the system that wishes to continue inexorably contributing to the problem. Of immediate concern to British Columbians are the strong implications for Enbridge’s attempts to run crude through aboriginal territories in the centre of the province.
Other projects on the horizon will similarly need to confront aboriginal title in order to proceed.
On a more existential and perhaps inspirational note, the Tsilhqot’in have shown to Canadians and the world that a small group of people with limited resources up against powerful lobbies can nonetheless effect profound change. The Tsilhqot’in tend to their backyard and have now won the legal right to protect it. Others of us would do well to do the same.
So the next time you are through the plateau, tip your hat to the Tsilhqot’in cowgirls and cowboys who have done us all a favour. The debt is ours.
Andrew Lodge is a physician from Bella Coola who is currently teaching at a non-profit medical school in Nepal.