The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in the Tsilhqot’in case has changed Canada forever. Justice has been served. But for how long? The answer is ours to determine.
The Supreme Court, on instructions from previous aboriginal title cases, has clearly affirmed the legitimacy in Canadian law of aboriginal title over our traditional territories. This case and others like it have been hard fought over for many decades. Too many of our elders and dear ones, who devoted their lives to this cause, died with a sorrowful heart over the loss of their homelands and did not live to see this day. Now, however, our ancestor’s voices have been heard and vindicated.
First Nations are quickly running out of time. We must begin today building the institutions we need to effectively govern our territories. We have to exercise our rights as governors of our lands, develop our own territorial laws to protect our lands and sacred places, and give industry and the Crown notice that they best engage early and negotiate accordingly.
In a unanimous decision of 8 – 0, the Justices of Canada’s highest court legitimized aboriginal ownership over territorial lands and resources, as well as the rights of indigenous peoples to choose how our territorial lands may be used to benefit current and future generations. This is a tremendous victory for us. So, what do we need to do next?
As indigenous peoples, we now face the difficult task of putting our title rights into place. This is a profound responsibility and we must act with vision, determination and care. We must proceed in the spirit of reconciliation.
The law provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to seize the moment and resume our place as responsible governors of our lands. We must not wait for federal or provincial governments or industry to set the stage for us and without us. Colonialism is dead. Canadian Courts have made it clear that they will no longer tolerate unilateral Crown actions or decisions taken with respect to our traditional lands. Our consent matters and we must organize now to make sure it stays that way.
It is also time to develop entirely different decision-making mechanisms for determining how we can better govern and use our aboriginal title lands and resources. As we have long been calling for, we need to create new government-to-government relationships of mutual responsibility and respect. Together, federal, provincial and indigenous governments must identify and formulate those new structures and processes for implementing aboriginal title meaningfully and in a manner that will foster reconciliation and prosperity for all.
This is entirely possible.
The challenges and opportunities that lie before us will test the ingenuity, integrity and resolve of aboriginal and non-aboriginal leaders within government and industry. Implementing this decision will define Canada as a just and prosperous society. Failing to act on and implement title rights, will only continue the legacy of injustice and denial of fundamental constitutional and human rights, fostering even greater uncertainty, acrimony and injustice.
We are all here to stay. So what will it be? It is up to us.
Satsan (Herb George)
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief
Senior Associate, Centre for First Nations Governance
The Centre for First Nations Governance is a non-profit organization that assists First Nations leadership and citizens in developing the governance required to pursue jurisdiction over their lands and manage the social and economic benefits that result.