(Coast Salish Territory/Vancouver, BC – February 2, 2018.) The Union of BC Indian Chiefs extends our warmest congratulations to the Williams Lake Indian Band in finally achieving justice for their Village Site Specific Claim after over a century of struggle. Today, the Supreme Court of Canada restored the 2014 decision of the Specific Claims Tribunal which ruled that Canada failed in its duty to protect the Williams Lake Indian Band’s ancestral village lands from pre-emption. The Court agreed that Canada’s failure contravened colonial law and that Canada had a fiduciary obligation to take appropriate measures to protect the village lands and remedy the loss.
Canada had challenged the Tribunal’s ruling and sought judicial review of the decision by the Federal Court of Appeal. In 2016 the Federal Court struck down the Tribunal’s ruling, replacing the Tribunal’s decision with its own, based on its own interpretation of the facts and forcing the Band to take its claim to the Supreme Court. The UBCIC led a coalition of interveners in support of Williams Lake, representing over 150 Indigenous Nations in BC where most pre-Confederation claims against the federal government originate.
The Supreme Court also affirmed the authority of the Specific Claims Tribunal to perform the “distinctive task” given to it by Parliament of adjudicating complex historical claims. The Specific Claims Tribunal is an independent body of Superior Court justices established in 2008 to rectify Canada’s conflict of interest in adjudicating claims and restore confidence in the integrity of the specific claims process to First Nations. The Court agreed that members of the Tribunal have the necessary legal and historical expertise to decide these cases and should be given deference.
UBCIC President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip expressed his deep relief, stating “I couldn’t be happier for the Williams Lake Indian Band and for all Indigenous Nations who have been assured that the Specific Claims Tribunal would fairly and finally resolve these long-outstanding grievances. It is important to recognize that a community’s decision to incur the financial and emotional burdens of pursuing these claims should end with the Tribunal’s ruling and not drag on through the courts. That’s what we were promised. I am very mindful that Canada fought the Williams Lake Indian Band at every turn, refusing to take responsibility for its past wrongs. I hope that today’s ruling by Canada’s highest court encourages the federal government to reconsider its adversarial obstinacy, which has always been without moral foundation and is now without legal foundation.”
Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, Chair of the BC Specific Claims Working Group, agreed. “I hold my hands up to the perseverance and dedication of the Williams Lake Indian Band who have been seeking justice for their lost village lands for over a century. This is an important victory for them and for all Indigenous Nations who are repeatedly told by Canada that their perspectives don’t matter, that our ties to our homelands don’t matter, rather than defining who we are as peoples. Ideally, this will be incentive for Canada to honour its commitments to work with Indigenous Nations in equal partnership to resolve these historical claims instead of forcing us into lengthy and costly court proceedings that undermine Canada’s often stated goals of recognition of title and rights and reconciliation.
Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, Secretary-Treasurer of the UBCIC, Chair of the BC Specific Claims Working Group
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