June 26 marked a historic day in Aboriginal-Canadian relations after a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada was delivered that upheld the rights of indigenous communites to ownership of traditional territory.
The decision comes in a case that is nearly 20 years old in which the Tsilhqot’in First Nation laid claim to some 1,700 km of land in the Nemiah Valley.
The decision was not just cause for the people of Tsilhqot’in to celebrate but rather set precedent for all First Nations communities in British Columbia.
The news was cause for celebration for the Nak’azdli First Nation of the Fort St. James area. The Nak’azdli have been involved in an on-going struggle against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline which would be built through their traditional territory.
The Supreme Court decision means that aboriginal communties like the Nak’azdli First Nation, have the legal right to refuse consent to any development or encroachment on their traditional territory.
Nak’azdli members took to the streets with drums and song in response to the landmark announcement.
Nak’azdli chief Fred Sam hopes this will be the end of the pipeline saying “We really don’t want it going through our territory. We haven’t given our consent.”
In many ways, this is not only a victory for First Nations people but for all British Columbians who opposed the pipeline, as this decision will create a considerable roadblock for companies like Enbridge to navigate around.
Sam said he believes that the federal government needs to listen not only to the First Nation’s community, but also to all British Columbians – an overwhelming number of which are opposed to the pipeline.
Sam added that thus far, there has been no contact from the federal government who are supposed to consult with First Nations on these issues. “Canada has not approached us at all.”
Sam insists that Nak’azdli are not against development or business in their lands, but rather are for environmentally sound, responsible business. “We’re a forward thinking community,” he said. “We need fair deals and the environment needs to be a priority. We need to look at these partnerships in greater depth.”
Sam said the decision is like seeing the light at the end of a tunnel and that he hopes the government sees it too, “Hopefully they see it’s important to work with us.”