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B.C. First Nation’s land rights claim is about reconciliation, lawyer tells court

Lawsuit says government effectively dispossessed Nuchatlaht nation of territory on Vancouver Island
Nuchatlaht First Nation elder and councillor Archie Little, centre, and Tyee Ha’with (Chief) Jordan Michael, far left, stand with supporters outside B.C. Supreme Court before the start of an Indigenous land title case, in Vancouver, on Monday, March 21, 2022. The lawsuit brought by the First Nation seeks to reclaim part of its territory on Nootka Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The lawyer for a First Nation that wants the British Columbia Supreme Court to recognize its rights and title and put a stop to logging on the land it’s claiming says the case is about reconciliation.

Jack Woodward told the court Aboriginal title was created through the merger of Indigenous and British legal systems in 1846, when the Crown resolved boundary disputes with the United States and claimed sovereignty over what’s now B.C.

He says the claim filed by the Nuchatlaht First Nation is about reconciliation and finding that balance between Crown and Indigenous legal systems, while recognizing the existence of Indigenous societies before colonization.

The lawsuit filed in 2017 asserts that the provincial and federal governments have denied Nuchatlaht rights by authorizing logging and “effectively dispossessing” the nation of parts of its territory on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

In a response to the claim, filed later that year, the province denies that the nation holds Aboriginal title over the area, which encompasses about 230 square kilometres of Nootka Island.

Lawyers for the B.C. and federal governments and logging firm Western Forest Products, another defendant, are expected to address the court later this week.

The nation’s chief at the time the lawsuit was filed said that the Nuchatlaht had spent many frustrating years at the treaty table and working through other government processes trying to protect its lands and the health of its people.

Woodward told the court on Monday the legal basis for claim is the test for Aboriginal title set out in the Supreme Court of Canada’s precedent-setting Tsilhqot’in decision in 2014.

That case recognized the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s rights and title over a swath of its traditional territory in B.C.’s central Interior, not only to historic village sites.

Woodward, who also represented the Tsilhqot’in in their claim, told Justice Elliott Myersthat the Nuchatlaht Nation meets the test for Aboriginal title.

Evidence from experts on both sides of the lawsuit agree Nuchatlaht people were occupying and using the claim area before and during 1846, he said.

The nation wants a declaration from the court that recognizes its rights and title and nullifies the application of B.C.’s Forests and Parks actsin the claim area, he said.

Woodward said the area the nation is claiming avoids any potential conflict with neighbouring nations.

Several dozen people, including members of the Nuchatlaht First Nation, gathered outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver Monday to mark the start of the trial, which is expected to last several weeks.

The land claim is the first to be heard since B.C. passed legislation in 2019 to align its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

—Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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