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Court ruling welcomed by Sto:lo

Sto:lo elders carry a wild salmon on a cedar plank to a table during the Aboriginal Wellness Day salmon ceremony at Tzeachten Sports Field on Saturday in celebration of National Aboriginal Day. The day also featured dancing, a barbecue, family games, Nordic walk, archery, cultural activities, cedar weaving and more.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Sto:lo elders carry a wild salmon on a cedar plank to a table during the Aboriginal Wellness Day salmon ceremony at Tzeachten Sports Field on Saturday in celebration of National Aboriginal Day. The day also featured dancing, a barbecue, family games, Nordic walk, archery, cultural activities, cedar weaving and more.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

It’s going to be a game-changer in the struggle for aboriginal rights and title.

A court case for aboriginal title that took almost 25 years for the Tsilhqot’in Nation of B.C. is going to have implications for First Nations in Chilliwack — as well as clear across the country.

A historic ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada upholds the BC Supreme Court decision recognizing aboriginal title to huge tracts of land totalling almost 2,000 square km in the heart of the Tsilhquot’in territory, west of Williams Lake.

Sto:lo leaders had similar reactions.

Joe Hall, president of Sto:lo Nation Chiefs’ Council, took a break from treaty meetings to describe how he sees Supreme Court decision.

“As you’d expect, we are very pleased with the decision,” he said. “In summary, the government has been told it can’t run roughshod over First Nations’ rights.”

Sto:lo legal counsel is still scouring the 80-plus page decision for “pieces” they can implement in their ongoing treaty talks.

“It came with a message that it’s time for governments to start following the Supreme Court rulings on aboriginal title, it’s time to go back and negotiate. It’s been made clear they need to consult, and then accommodate First Nations to resolve the issues,” Hall said.

The court ruling has “tremendous” implications for current treaty discussions, and touches on a range of areas of interest to Sto:lo communities, including future resource development on their territories, Hall said.

There are many projects and ventures put on hold, pending resolution of outstanding questions around aboriginal rights and title, he noted.

“The government negotiators and ministry officials will have to look closely at their mandates and review them in light of this ruling.”

Even the future of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion, or Enbridge’s Gateway project, as examples could be affected by the latest ruling or eventually stalled.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly of Sto:lo Tribal Council said even though the STC is not in the treaty process, the ruling still has key implications for all.

“First off I want to congratulate the Tsilhquot’in chiefs, leaders and citizens of the Tsilhquot’in Nation  for pursuing this title case right through to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“They have achieved a significant victory and they serve all B.C. First Nations with their victory.”

Governments at the federal and provincial level will have to heed the ramifications, and review their mandates accordingly, Kelly said.

“This now creates the space for dialogue with federal and provincial governments on the renewal of those impoverished treaty mandates,” he said.

Federal government aspirations to energy projects, like Gateway or the provincial pursuit of LNG might have to shift in light of this legal development.

“Governments will be studying the court decision to make changes to the way they consult, and accommodate First Nations, as well as how they plan and design projects that will have an impact on First Nations’ homelands.”

It’s also a clear message to industry along those same lines.

“It will take changes to the way they do business, such as involving First Nations very early in the process. They need to see what kinds of projects are acceptable and they need to design projects that are profitable but also gain support of First Nations governments.”

The sooner they engage aboriginal participation in the process, the sooner they will learn which projects are no-go.

“In closing, this is not the first time First Nations have secured victory at the Supreme Court. But I am hopeful the law and order party, the Conservatives, will begin to heed aboriginal case law, and do the work necessary to adequately engage First Nations.”

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