Saturday, May 18, 2024

Island Issues

Canada: More British Columbian Islands Finds Themselves Subject to First Nation Claim

Yet another First Nation group in Canada has registered a claim seeking the return of traditional, aboriginal territory, this time involving three islands in the Strait of Georgia (British Columbia)

A First Nation group in Western Canada has registered a contentious territory claim on three sprawling islands in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia. Represented by Chief Raymond Wilson, the small aboriginal band – known as the Hwlitsum First Nation – has filed a notice of claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia with the hope that important ancestral lands will be returned to the group.

As well as seeking the return of Galiano Island, Saltspring Island and Deadman’s Island to their ancestral lands, the First Nation group is also hoping to receive financial compensation to the tune of CAD 1 billion for “the loss of access to traditional territories”. According to the claim, this loss of access dates back as far as the 19th century, when the native tribe was driven into exile after coming under attack from colonial forces.

The territorial claim is highly contentious for several reasons; not least because – at present – neither the federal nor the provincial government recognizes the existence of the Hwlitsum First Nation group. Whilst the band’s chief – a descendant of the powerful Lamalcha tribe – succeeded in a 15-year Supreme Court fight to regain his full Indian status – his tribe still currently exists only in name.

Both the federal and provincial government believed the tribe to have disbanded after the devastating British bombardment of Lamalcha Bay in 1862, meaning that when it came to future treaty resettlement agreements and dispersals of lands (in which many long-standing First Nation territory claims were amicably resolved), the Hwlitsum / Lamalcha group was overlooked.

And indeed, whilst it is true that many members of the Hwlitsum First Nation group were absorbed into other coastal tribes during the immediate aftermath of the bloody battle (a direct result of their displacement by British naval forces), Alberta-based legal expert Jeffrey Rath argues that – contrary to the belief of government officials – the Hwlitsum Tribe never truly went away.

“The case is about a First Nation who the government of Canada and the government of British Columbia have been ignoring for the last 150 years, because they are the heirs to some of the most expensive title on the West Coast – including a substantial part of Stanley Park” explained Roth. “We have documented evidence of the current chief’s great grandparents being driven out by gunpoint, where their family had been in aboriginal occupation since time immemorial.”

The Hwlitsum themselves claim that the land of their ancestors once extended throughout the Southern Strait of Georgia as far as Yale. As the colonial settlers increased their grip on the country, however, one of the tribe’s principal villages was attacked by the British shop HMS Forward. In the ensuing chaos, many tribal leaders (including several from the Hwlitsum / Lamalcha tribe) were captured and hung. The decimated band was then forced to group together with other tribes, causing their true aboriginal title to become confused with claims from other nations.

Matters have been further complicated by a potential conflict of interest. Both the Hwlitsum group and the well-established, recognized Tsawwassen Group both lay claim to the same piece of land. Yet as former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant explained in the Vancouver Sun, “the Tsawwassen treaty is not supposed to extinguish anybody else’s aboriginal right. The Hwlitsum are simply saying, ‘you’ve forgot about us. First you dispossessed us, you forgot about us, and then you ignored us. And now is our time.’”

As well as the Tsawwassen land, the Hwlitsum First Nation has also lain claim to the entirety of Galiano Island, as well as large swathes of Saltspring Island, much of the province’s popular Stanley Park, land along the banks of the Fraser River and Deadman Island – a four hectare islet in Vancouver Harbour, long since used as by the federal government as a naval reserve. And whilst none of the lands in question are privately owned, the group’s civil claim case has raised several eyebrows amongst the local community; insofar that also includes municipal lands.

“This is a novel and serious claim, the first I have seen,” said legal expert Reece Harding. Explaining that it wasn’t uncommon for First Nation claims to include provincial and federal lands, municipal government land is usually left untouched. “I have never seen a First Nation seeking municipal land before,” continued Harding. “It will certainly be a concern to other municipalities.”

The standing of the application is set to be reviewed in March. Stay tuned to Private Island News to find out the latest developments as they arise, either on our homepage or our social media pages. You’ll find us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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