Landmark land settlement
Canada’s first modern, urban treaty gives the Tsawwassen First Nation control of its land and the chance at a prosperous future
“I’m not sure what will happen in the future with other treaties. There are some people who are concerned for the future in terms of the agricultural lands, the fishery and the issue of taxation without representation.”|
— Lois Jackson, Mayor of Delta
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Songs of the Nass
By Stephen Hume
Originally appeared in Canadian Geographic, 2000 Annual, Vol. 120 Issue 1
The Nisga’a drew upon clan songs and stories to trace their claim
to the Nass Valley. But other First Nations also sing of the valley.
Whose music will the mapmakers hear?
WE CALL THE MONTH November, but in the liquid syllables of the
Nisga’a language it is Gwilatkw, the moon in which the first snows
arrive in the Nass River valley, a signal that Earth has begun to
robe herself in preparation for the long winter sleep.
Smooth and dark as volcanic glass, the 380-kilometre river carves
through the declared homeland of the 6,000-strong Nisga’a. Glittering,
snow-clad mountains millions of years older than the Himalayas tower
over deep fiords. Mist-draped forests of fir and cedar ascend to
Here in northwestern British Columbia, a historic treaty more than
a century in the making attempts what was once thought impossible
— to mesh non-native federal and provincial laws with aboriginal
concepts of title. When Nisga’a chiefs arrived in Victoria in November
1998 to celebrate the treaty agreement with the B.C. government,
the moment was charged with symbolism. In 1887, a Nisga’a delegation
to the legislature was turned away. Now the chiefs were welcomed
to the floor of the house itself — aboriginal rights had moved
to the heart of a political process that once marginalized and ignored
This remarkable event also marked a precedent-setting and profoundly
important juncture of two protocols for managing real estate as
different in world views as November is to Gwilatkw.
On one side — a system descended from William the Conqueror’s
feudal Domesday Book, the first official registry of land holdings
in England. This detailed description of the land, based on oral
testimony and completed in 1086, named present and former holders,
and determined the population base. From this, the administration
of private property was set, the precepts of which eventually found
their way into Canadian law. On the other side of the divide —
the Ayuukhl Nisga’a, an oral code of clan law and custom in which
sovereignty and communal or clan title are recorded in stories,
songs and the ownership of names and crests.
At the 1998 Victoria ceremony, drums throbbed. Black ceremonial
robes displayed vivid scarlet crests of the Nisga’a Wolf, Eagle,
Killer Whale and Raven clans. White eagle down representing peace
and friendship drifted through the air, helping to purify the ground
where the hereditary chiefs of the great houses walked. As they
moved up the steps to the legislative chamber, the time-obscured
names of ancestors who had begun this journey were recited.
Then, less than three weeks after this triumphant day, a challenge
to the Nisga’a agreement erupted. The tribe’s northern neighbours,
the Gitanyow, headed to court to declare that Canada and B.C. had
no right to hand over control of areas that they traditionally claimed
as their own. More than 80 percent of Gitanyow traditional territory
now sits within the Nisga’a wildlife management area. And, they
say, they have historic maps and oral history to prove it.
"This is an act of aggression," says Glen Williams, chief
negotiator for the 2,000 Gitanyow, repeating a refrain their leaders
have used for more than a decade with little effect. "They’re
invading our territory and we will be forced to defend it."
Such words echo back to a dark history in the Nass Valley and its
adjacent territories, to stories of bloody campaigns for territorial
sovereignty between the Nisga’a, Tsetsaut, Tahltan, Gitksan and
their Gitanyow cousins. Such admonitions are also an ominous portent
for the 51 First Nations involved in more than 40 other treaty negotiations
now underway across B.C. Many involve parcels of land claimed by
more than one tribe.
BIOLOGISTS MARVEL at the diversity of this ecosystem in which huge
grizzlies and magnificent bald eagles live in an often mysterious
symbiosis with the vast runs of sockeye, pink, coho, chinook and
chum salmon that teem in the waterways. Sure-footed mountain goats
and bighorn sheep scramble along cliff faces, while moose splash
through the shallows and wetlands.
The Nass River drains a watershed of 21,567 square kilometres,
an area more than three and a half times the size of Prince Edward
Island. For those who have lived here the longest, the map of the
valley is defined not by latitude and longitude but by names and
landmarks. The river is a fundamental part of a collective identity.
According to aboriginal cosmology, the river is in constant motion,
waxing and waning like the moon with the seasonal increase and decrease
in mountain melts. Boundaries, too, are fluid, expanding and contracting
in the timeless rhythms of kinship, need and available resources.
The Nisga’a have lived on the river they call Lisims in the valley
known as Ts’ak’hl Nisga’a (the common bowl) for at least 8,000 and
probably 10,000 years, practising their same law, harvesting the
same runs of salmon and oolichan, telling and re-telling the same
ancient stories that often spring from the dramatic imperatives
of the land itself.
Approaching the Nass from the south, the dusty road that starts
in the Skeena River watershed emerges from the mountain passes to
cross the scorched volcanic plain of Anhluut’ukwsim Lax-mihl Angwinga’asanskwhl
Nisga’a (where the Nisga’a were buried). An easy hike from this
road lies the crater from which, according to Nisga’a oral history,
a river of molten rock entombed 2,000 people in a village named
Lax Ksi Luux (now in Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park).
CARVING UP THE NASScollective ownership of, and logging rights to, 1,992 square kilometres in the lower Nass Valley (Nisga’a land)
$487 million in benefits and cash
hunting and resource management rights in the Nass Wildlife Area
fishing rights in the watershed and the Nass Wildlife Area.
The treaty will give the Nisga’a:
The Gitanyow say the Nisga’a will control 5,294 square kilometres of their 6,280-square-kilometre territory (or 84 percent). Of the 28,500 square kilometres the Gitksan say is theirs, 9,053 (32 percent) falls in the watershed. Under the Nisga’a treaty, if neighbouring First Nations prove they have title to some of the land, the Nisga’a will get financial or other compensation from governments.
— Alexandra Stikeman
The eruption is part of European history, too. It can be traced
to 1775, when Padre Miguel de la Campa’s diary speaks of how the
crew of the Spanish ship Sonora suffered from the heat of "the
great flames which issued from four or five mouths of a volcano
and at night lit up the whole district, rendering everything visible."
This melding of histories both exhilarates and troubles Frank Calder.
As founder of the Nisga’a Tribal Council, the 84-year-old is a living
legend. Calder’s name is attached to a 1973 Supreme Court case in
which the Nisga’a sought a declaration that title to traditional
territories had never been extinguished. Although dismissed on a
technicality, the case forever changed the face of Canadian jurisprudence
on native rights. While split on whether Nisga’a title had been
extinguished, six of the seven judges agreed that aboriginal title
might still exist in law. It was "enough to move the mountain," says
Calder. The federal government responded by negotiating comprehensive
land claims where aboriginal title had not been extinguished by
treaty. That meant most of B.C.
Calder putters around his Victoria studio, exuding the avuncular
ease of the born storyteller. His eyes twinkle and flash, his face
is expressive, his narrative punctuated with dramatic pause and
gesture. "To us, the boundaries are defined by the water that
flows down from all the heights of land to the valleys below. This
is Nisga’a territory," Calder says, leaning suddenly into his
point, emphasizing it with a thump of his finger. Asked to elaborate
on what belongs to the Nisga’a, he recalls his words to the court
in the 1970s: "From mountaintop to mountaintop ... everything
that flows into the Nass. It’s been passed down from generation
to generation from before anyone can remember."
From Calder’s perspective, problems with neighbours began when
the Nass Valley began to be viewed in terms of the European concept
of private property. Prior to the arrival of European surveyors,
he says, tribal relationships were not between nations as understood
by Europeans, but between house territories governed by kinship
obligations and mutually respected rights. Permission was always
required to travel into another’s territory, but sharing resources
would never call into question territorial sovereignty. Jurisdictional
shifts could flow from marriages between the houses, friendly alliances
or, more rarely, battle.
"I’m a Killer Whale," says Calder, naming his clan. "Through
the generations, if Killer Whales had a place rich in a certain
seasonal resource, then they would welcome other Killer Whales to
come and share. When the oolichan start to appear in March, all
the other tribes come to us, even the Tlingits from Alaska. They
all come to the mouth of the Nass to get oolichan and we welcome
that. It doesn’t mean the Nass is their river. We were all connected
by our clan relationships and this created a sense of obligation
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Creator. when you think of what our forefathers were doing for treaties, they had vision, us as first nation people, have that birthright, vision. now for modern day treaties to even carry weight, one must see how did we go about it. did we use every tool, ceremony, and the spirit world, or do we just use all the confusion that we have attained over the years and find whats best. too many of our people have not even grasped the power and the wisdom of our ancestors or even use what we already have. Treaties, Treaties, Treaties, think about that for awhile. They have not come from creator. we think and beleive we have done good with these treaties,, when you look at it, its meaningless. its a bandaid for now. in time, all this will be back to how it is, in the meantime, we're just playing a silly game, suffering is going on, our people lie and are lied to, killing, gangs, poor housing, poor reserves, stealing from one another, all these are just games. When we have seen all this, now and in the future as it will get worse, maybe our leaders will use there full potential as a human, a nation, as it has been bestowed among our people, our gift of vision, to see what is there, what can be done. But then the government doesn't see it that way, so why then, shall we be forced to see things within this treaty way.Yet its right in front of us to live our life, and see that what this commotion is really is meaningless. sounds crazy, but thats the difference between seeing what is there, and not seeing, which eventually helps us to understand life in the physical or the spiritual realm. It is both sad and useless, to see what our leaders are doing without consulting with creator. what can we do? fight it? why? Do what we can for now I guess, get what we can, riiiiiiiiiigt.
According to my understanding, there is very few fertile land in the world. The population is increasing, but the fertile land is decreasing day by day. Canada occupies 7% of the world's land but we have limited fertile land. Tsawwassen land is one of the most fertile lands in BC. If we use such a fertile land for other purposes than farming, there will be negative impact in ecosystem. Infrastructure like an airport, port, housing, roads, railway etc should be constructed on a non-fertile land. We have to think sustainable development. So Tsawwassen Treaty is concern only for business purposes - it only tried to make money by constructing a port instead of farming.
The treaty was driven by the Gateway - the provincial plan to expand the port and connect it with new and wider highways. This ignores the collapse of the US dollar, the steep decline in cross Pacific container traffic, the availability of new routres such as the North West passage and the widened Panama Canal and the key role played by the railways in moving transcontinental freight. All these issues are dealt at length in my blog - stephenrees.wordpress.com and on the Livable Region web site
This is typical of the short term thinking that bedevils our political system. We need to take a strategic view of how our world is changing - and how to cope with that. Unfortunately, the appeals to justice in the TFN process have been ignored by the grab for the quick buck. A sad day for Canada and the Tsawwassen, who both deserve much better leaders with real vision
The TFN treaty was done without proper consideration of the Semiahmoo First Nation treaty, the protection of our Agricultural Land Reserve, or the Environment. This is not about giving TFN its due... its about expanding DeltaPort at the expense of our farmland, the Fraser River estuary, and our air quality in a area that shouldn't have been considered for a port in the first place. Tsawwassen First Nations accepted individual cash payouts from the government for signing the treaty and now we will all have to live with the blight of container sprawl on some of the best farmland and most important wildlife habitat in the world.
Just a few miles to the North in Richmond we have another parcel of the prime agricultural land that is currently under the review of the Agriculture Land Commission to be probably released from the ALR and be developed into the mixed residential area - our beautiful 136 acres Garden City Lands. The First Nations people needs are used as a reason for the land to be developed again so they can get their money and we can loose another parcel of the land that could feed our children. Their children need to eat as well - all our children will suffer in the future because the land, once developed, will be lost for the agriculture forever. There is not enough appreciation for the value of the undeveloped land now.
Food security issues and rising price of fuel make the value of the land that is close to our home much higher - now it might be not economically viable and next decade it will be for sure, especially when virgin lands are involved - they can be used for the fast start of the organic farming with much higher prices and unlimited demand.
As Chair of the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee (LMTAC), I would like to provide the following comments in response to your recent feature on the Tsawwassen Final Agreement, as well as provide another perspective on local government participation in the BC Treaty Process.
“Treaty Advisory Committees” were established across the province in response to local government demands to have a direct voice in the BC Treaty Process. Through LMTAC, Lower Mainland area local governments actively participated as full members of the provincial negotiating team at the Tsawwassen Treaty table since substantive discussions began in 1995. In addition to providing advice and local government perspective on issues, LMTAC participation included having a local government representative at the treaty table during the negotiations. Given the unique complexity of the urban Lower Mainland, it was essential for LMTAC to be directly involved in the treaty negotiations to ensure that issues important to residents and local governments, both municipal and regional, were raised and understood by the First Nations, Federal and Provincial governments.
Treaty negotiations are a long process however, LMTAC strongly supports the objective of treaties to provide certainty with respect to aboriginal rights and title. As local governments, we favour negotiated settlements that have the potential to build relationships rather than litigation that can be just as time consuming and costly.
Negotiations by their very nature require give and take by all sides, and LMTAC’s analysis of the Tsawwassen Final Agreement revealed that a majority (88%) of issues identified by local government were addressed. The Intergovernmental Relations and Services Chapter is an achievement in which LMTAC is proud to have had an active role in development. Tsawwassen’s participation in regional governance structures will encourage understanding and the opportunity for all Lower Mainland local governments to work together on matters of mutual interest. Despite positive efforts on governance matters, LMTAC does acknowledge that, given the nature of negotiations, there were a few issues in which local government interests were not fully met, such as the ‘Specified Lands’ approach to post-treaty additions to Treaty Settlement Lands (TSL), because it removes the requirement of municipal consent, and the exclusion of some portions of proposed TSL from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) without due process.
While LMTAC continues to advocate the need for more public information on the BC Treaty Process, it’s important to note that treaty negotiations, like any other form of negotiations, do require adherence to confidentially given the sensitivity of matters under discussion. Through LMTAC, Lower Mainland Councils and Boards were provided with regular treaty table updates, with some matters restricted to closed sessions.
In recognition of the work ahead in implementing the Tsawwassen Final Agreement, LMTAC is very interested to see a smooth transition into the post-treaty environment, and we believe that our experience as local governments will be a valuable resource to assist Tsawwassen First Nation as it takes on new governance responsibilities.
Mayor Ralph Drew, Chair
Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee
Home: (604) 937-0143
Office: (604) 451-6198
Cell: (778) 868-5378