by Richard Rolke - Vernon Morning Star
A Supreme Court of Canada ruling on aboriginal title could reignite local First Nations’ defence of their rights.
The Okanagan and Splatsin bands may reopen the Jules/Wilson logging case after the Supreme Court ruled Thursday the Tsilhqot’in Nation in the Chilcotin has title to its traditional lands.
“We’re sitting down with legal counsel to look at the decision and see how we proceed,” said Wayne Christian, Splatsin First Nation chief.
In 1999, the Okanagan and Shuswap nations issued permits to their bands to harvest timber to provide housing for their members. The provincial government challenged the permits and legal action ensued for several years.
The issue arose again in 2009 when the Okanagan Indian Band established a camp at Browns Creek, off Westside Road, to gather archeological evidence and stop commercial logging.
A judge ruled the band couldn’t interfere with logging but the camp was re-established because of concerns logging may negatively impact the community’s watershed.
In 2011, a B.C. Supreme Court ruling allowed the Okanagan band to proceed with legal action and to openly question the provincial government’s decision-making authority on forested land when there has been no formal treaty signed with First Nations.
Byron Louis, Okanagan band chief, hopes Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Tsilhqot’in will move the local process along.
“Much of our land was never lawfully surrendered, let alone lawfully taken,” he said.
“Without resolution, this issue will not simply go away. Now is the time to solve it, not in 10 generations.”
Christian also wants to see a conclusion.
“We have always said, ‘How do we co-exist and work with government?’” he said.
Louis isn’t sure when his band will decide to proceed with the Jules/Wilson case again.
“It (Supreme Court) is a large decision and complicated so it will take time to look at it,” he said, adding that there must be a way to reconcile economic activities with protecting water and cultural values. “It’s not our goal to stop economic development. We just want it done more responsibly.”
Eric Foster, Vernon-Monashee MLA, is reviewing the Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot’in ruling.
“It’s early on to make a comment about implications as everyone is looking at it,” he said.
“But it changes the way government and business will do business with First Nations. On the positive side, all negotiations will be based on this case so everyone knows the rules of the game before they go in. It will make it easier for everyone.”