Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Aug 30 2006 (IPS) — Earlier this summer, Canada’s Indian Claims Commission recommended that the federal government negotiate a settlement with the Williams Lake Indian Band on its claim to village sites in Williams Lake, British Columbia, in the interior of Canada’s most western province.

“This is a very significant decision,” Williams Lake Indian Band Chief William Alphonse recently told IPS. “It’s the first time an existing municipality has come under land claim and been accepted by a government commission. We will be seeking compensation both for the past and in terms of future developments.”

Alphonse said he has 130 BC First Nations Band Chiefs supporting the case, which will begin the process of resolving what has been almost a 150-year grievance. He will be sending a letter to the federal minister to begin negotiations and is hoping not to have to go back to the courts to enforce the decision.

“I remember visiting Boitanio Mall in Grade 5 and seeing them dig up artifacts, necklaces and baskets. The site of the present mall is a former burial ground. This is a long dispute and we even have a letter that Chief William wrote to Queen Victoria in 1879 protesting what was going on. The people in my band and the elders are ecstatic,” said Chief Alphonse.

In early June, the panel concluded its inquiry into the pre-emption of two village sites which included an area known as Glendale and another at the foot of Williams Lake.

The chair of the panel, Commissioner Alan Holman, said in a statement that, “We heard oral evidence from the Elders of the Williams Lake Indian Band and legal arguments from lawyers for Canada and the Band. Based on the balance of the documentary evidence we found that Canada breached its basic fiduciary duties by failing to act when the Band needed land set aside for it.”

Though private land cannot be confiscated under current provincial law for First Nations land claims, it must be compensated for. The treaty process is complicated and involves federal and provincial levels of government where some bands follow the formal treaty process and others attempt to seek redress through the courts. This land dispute is not part of the BC Treaty Commission process.

The panel found that the Williams Lake Indian Band had an interest in the use and occupation of the village sites at Glendale and the foot of Williams Lake both prior to the pre-emptions and after the pre-emptions. It found that the basic duties of loyalty, good faith, full disclosure and ordinary diligence were breached by then Indian Reserve Commissioner Peter O’Reilly in 1881, when the village sites should have been set aside and recommended as possible reserves.

On Jan. 4, 1860, the governor of the then colony of British Columbia, James Douglas, issued Proclamation No. 15, allowing settlers to acquire, or pre-empt, unoccupied and unreserved Crown land in BC. Indian reserve or settlement areas were prohibited from being occupied.

A year later, Douglas instructed that a 400-500 acre reserve be set aside for the Williams Lake Indian Band, but his instructions were never carried out. When British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada in 1871, the province retained control over its lands and resources, while acknowledging the country’s jurisdiction over Indians and lands reserved for Indians.

According to local writer Diana French, gold miners began swarming into the Cariboo region in the late 1850s where they followed the Indian and fur brigade trails which met at Williams Lake where there were two large Secwepemc winter villages.

By 1860, the gold commissioner was established in the village and a number of newcomers had pre-empted land for houses and huge, prosperous farms which supplied produce, meat, whiskey and other necessities to the gold fields.

Chief William’s people were chased away and those who survived the smallpox outbreak were eventually moved to land at the other end of the lake, though the governor had decreed that their land could not be pre-empted.

In 1879, Chief William of the Williams Lake Indian Band wrote a letter to the editor of the British Daily Colonist and Queen Victoria, protesting the conditions under which his people were forced to live, stating: “I am an Indian chief and my people are threatened by starvation. The white men have taken all the land and all the fish. A vast country was ours. It is all gone.”

Over the years, different Band Councils filed grievances, but neither the federal nor provincial governments listened.

In 1881, Peter O’Reilly, the Indian Reserve Commissioner, visited the Indian Band and set aside 14 reserves for it. None of the reserves were located at the original village sites of the Band. In 1894, additional lands were set aside for reserve purposes.

In 1912, the McKenna-McBride Commission was established to settle the differences between Canada and BC regarding Indian lands. Chief Baptiste William appeared before the commission in 1914, outlining grievances related to the pre-emption of its village sites and requesting more land due to the rocky nature of the reserves.

The next year, the Commission confirmed all 15 reserves for the Williams Lake Indian Band that had been previously set aside by O’Reilly. In 1938, some revisions were made but not to the satisfaction of the Williams Lake Indian Band.

The Indian Claims Commission was established in 1991 to look into specific claims that have been rejected by the federal government or where the First Nation disputes the compensation criteria being considered in negotiations and to provide mediation services.

Two years ago, the current Band took the issue to the ICC. Only in June 2006 did the Commission agree that the earlier colonial, provincial and federal governments had ignored the statutes Governor Douglas had put in place to protect the aboriginal people..

“This report deals with an independent commission of inquiry that deals with very specific matters. This raises the question of the government’s legal obligations even prior to the creation of the reserves and of the province of BC joining Confederation,” Renee Dupuis, Chief Comissioner of the Indian Claims Commission, told IPS.

“This report deals with legal obligations and damages. Our role is to make a recommendation – it is non-binding on government. The decision will ultimately be up to the Indian Affairs Minister working with Justice Canada as to whether they accept the recommendation.”


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