First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Sovereign Owners

This engraving of a 1772 painting by Benjamin West depicts a famous treaty signing ceremony in 1683 between the Lenni Lenape Indians and the Quaker colonist William Penn. The Indians are represented with dignity and respect as the sovereign owners of their land and the ceremony reflects the Quaker principles of equality, friendship and peace.


Sovereign Owners

Indigenous Rights

Ever since the colonization of British Columbia (BC), the indigenous people have protested that they, and not the European newcomers, are the sovereign owners of their lands and waters. Secwepemc leader George Manuel (1921 - 1989) brought the issue of indigenous rights onto the world stage (right). In BC in 1978 he initiated an important declaration that formulates the right to self determination:

"Traditionally, First Nations practised uncontested, supreme and absolute power over our territories, our resources and our lives with the right to govern, to make and enforce laws, to decide citizenship, to wage war or to make peace and to manage our lands, resources and institutions. Aboriginal Title and Rights means we as Indian people hold Title and have the right to maintain our sacred connection to Mother Earth by governing our territories through our own forms of Indian Government. Our Nations have a natural and rightful place within the family of nations of the world. Our political, legal, social and economic systems developed in accordance with the laws of the Creator since time immemorial and continue to this day. Our power to govern rests with the people and like our Aboriginal Title and Rights, it comes from within the people and cannot be taken away" 1978, Union of BC Indian Chiefs: Aboriginal Title & Rights Position Paper.


Secwepemc George Manuel, c. 1983.
Photo: University of British Columbia

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Arthur Manuel (right) at Sun Peaks, 21 September 2007.
Photos: anon

A fireside press conference was held on 21 September 2007 by the Secwepemc Native Youth Movement (above) to draw attention to the decision of the Austrian National Ski Team to train on Secwepemc Territory at Sun Peaks. Arthur Manuel says that Indian land is routinely stolen by the unethical and underhanded strategies of government - big business: Divide & Rule; Elected Chiefs; Sucking & Blowing; Traditional Rights Abuse and so on. Read an excerpt of his condemnation of Canada's failure to provide justice for communities such as his: Sun Peaks - Indian Land For Sale.


Indigenous rights activist Arthur Manuel, son of George Manuel, took part in a fireside press conference at Sun Peaks Resort (left). He says "Secwepemc Aboriginal Title Land is being sold right from under our feet." Click for a typical real estate scam: You See The Mountain (left). The collective rights of the sovereign owners of this unceded land are being abused by a government and legal system that punishes the native protesters by arrest, handcuffing and jail (left and below). See chapter: Skwelkwek'welt.

Arrest at Sun Peaks, 21 September 2004.
Photo: Arthur Manuel

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Guujaaw, Chief Iljuwaas (centre), Arthur Manuel, 2004.
Photo: Nicole Schabus


On 18 November 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada made a landmark ruling on the sovereignty of the Council of the Haida Nation and Taku River Tlingit First Nation. Many aboriginal leaders were present in Ottawa to celebrate the historic moment including Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation; Haida Chief Iljuwaas (Reynold Russ); and Arthur Manuel, spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (left). For an online discussion of issues related to sovereignty and land rights, see the University of British Columbia 2005 First Nations Studies Internet Speaker Series: Land Claims and Governance. Speakers, including Guujaaw and Arthur Manuel, discuss the new court ruling on the duty of the BC government to consult and accommodate aboriginal peoples and its economic impact on development, resources and land use.

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Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson says that the BC government should not be negotiating any new treaties until it stops violating the Douglas Treaties signed between Britain and a handful of First Nations on Vancouver Island prior to colonization and he demands an immediate stop to the abuse of Kwakiutl constitutionally guaranteed rights. See chapter: Kwakiutl. On 17 August 2007 he took part in a meeting in Victoria of Douglas Treaty Beneficiaries at the Lekwungen Longhouse to discuss how the government's proposed changes to the BC Wildlife Act will impact their inherent and exclusive right to hunt and fish (right).

Lekwungen Cheryl Bryce, Bear Mountain Resort, 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders


Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson, 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders

Chief Rupert Wilson wants all disputed Indian land to be declared "No Touch Zones" where no resource exploitation or development can take place during treaty negotiation, similar to how common property is held in escrow during divorce proceedings. Instead, he says "the government is selling off our land and resources under our noses and against our Douglas Treaty rights." An example are BC's murky deals with Western Forest Products Inc. - which forced the Kwakiutl First Nation to protest in Victoria on 12 February 2007. See subchapter: Kwakiutl Protest.

The same international forest corporation was behind the secretive selling of forest land to developer Len Barry for his notorious golf and condo monstrosity called Bear Mountain Resort. Lekwungen activist Cheryl Bryce tried in vain to invoke the BC Heritage Act to stop the developer's destruction of a sacred Salish cave and native arbutus groves on traditional hunting and gathering grounds (left). See subchapter: SPAET.

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While the governments of Canada and BC refuse to honour historic treaty obligations, they continue to pursue an outdated and discredited form of settlement geography. Its colonialist and racist assumptions were expressed by cartographic maps of Canada that marginalised or excluded altogether the indigenous peoples. Influential in this tradition was the notorious settlement geographer and environmental determinist Griffith Taylor (1880 - 1963) who for many years, from 1935 to 1951, "preached" his white supremacist ideas about migration and settlement at the University of Toronto. It was the righteous destiny of white settlers, Taylor urged, to take possession of the lands discovered by them since the days of Columbus and develop these lands by means of argriculture, mining, etc. The frontispiece of his 1947 book on Canada is entitled "Future Settlement of Canada as determined by the Environment" (right). This book cartographically encourages occupation by Europeans, showing future population density (the number of people per square mile) to be reached in the year 2045.


"Future Settlement of Canada."
Map: Taylor, Canada, 1947

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Indigenous people - their interests and their land rights - were ignored by being given no presence at all on Canada's "habitability map" (right). Astonishingly, for the greater part of BC, Taylor indicated "no important population," entirely wiping off the map the province's many First Nations. Today, the government rhetoric has changed to be in tune with post colonialist orthodoxy but official development practices remain in line with Taylor's odious settlement geography.

Colonial concepts of environment, race and nation serve the Euro American exploitation and development of "wild" indigenous land that is to be seized and settled, not preserved or protected. This view is clearly framed by R. E. Gosnell (1860 - 1931) in his Year Book of British Columbia. Dedicated to Queen Victoria, it went through five editions from 1897 to 1914, and described the resource industries on which BC's economy is based: forestry, fishing, mining, agriculture and tourism. There is no mention of the indigenous inhabitants in chapter one: the history of BC. Not until chapter six is the subject "Our Indians" raised and "Their Place in the Nation" made clear: "They are fast advancing towards modern civilized conditions ... The less advanced ones, who, to a small extent, may be said to be in a state of pupilage, have their minor affairs regulated by the provisions of the Indian Act which are from time to time amended by the Dominion Legislature to suit their advancing conditions." A plate shows "Some Indian Sketches" (right).

Gosnell writes that "Their Privileges" include: "Reservations of land ... held for them inviolate by the Indian Department and are subdivided into plots which the Indians may hold and own in severalty, but they may not sell any property belonging to the reserve without permission from the Government." The 1868 Indian Act was used to oppress the indigenous inhabitants and keep them down in a state of apartheid while their resources and lands were stolen. See: Historical Timeline (Union of BC Indian Chiefs). Officially classified as wards of Canada, the aboriginal peoples were not even allowed to vote in national elections until 1960.

Today - almost 50 years later - Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson says that the repression of his people by the governments of Canada and BC has only become worse. Like native communities everywhere, conditions on his reserve are at third world poverty levels with terrible unemployment and alcohol and drug abuse. Fishery resourses have been degraded by industrial overuse and fish farms have ruined the wild salmon market, wiping out the livelihood of many First Nations communities. The failure of the sockeye salmon to return in 2007 means hunger for some families. Also in 2007 the Kwakiutl have had to launch two new legal suits against the further theft and violation of their land.


"Habitability." (click to enlarge)
Map: Taylor, Canada, 1947

"Some Indian Sketches."
Plate: Gosnell, Year Book, 1901

Aboriginal rights advocate Thomas Berger (left) has been described as "possibly the greatest and most influential British Columbian ever." For a list of his publications, see: Thomas Berger. In 1964, Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson invited the young Thomas Berger to his home on the Fort Rupert Indian Reserve (Tsaxis) to get legal advice on how to stop the government of Canada from its forced amalgamation of two Kwakwaka'wakw tribes and relocating to the T'sulquate Indian Reserve in Kwakiutl Territory. He says he finally won his case 18 years later by going in person to the "Black Box" (the Department of Indian Affairs building) in Vancouver and threatening to expose Canada's brutal removal of the 'Nakwaxda'xw people from Ba'as (Blunden Harbour) and the Gwa'sala from T'akus (Takush Harbour) in the early 1960s.

Blunden Harbour - Ba'as, 1901.
Photo: BC Archives

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"Raven Woman." Painting by Roger Simon.
Collection: Indian Art Centre

We cannot ignore the wrongs of the past
or the rights flowing from the historical
relationships between Aboriginal
and non-Aboriginal people in Canada.
But we are not prisoners of the past,
and we can restore and renew that
relationship on the basis of
mutual recognition and respect,
sharing and responsibility.

The painting the Kwakiutl "Raven Woman" (left) by Mi'kmaq artist Roger Simon appears on the front cover of "Restructuring the Relationship," volume two of the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada report: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996). The quote (above) appears on the back cover of the same volume. The 4,000 pages of this report are a condemnation of Canada as a country "built on a living lie" (terra nullius) and it recommends a wide range of radical reforms.

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"All is not well in BC," protest, 15 October 2007.
Photo: Globe & Mail Newspaper

  Canada and the provincial governments have done precious little to implement the 1996 report by the Royal Commission. BC has adopted only its politically correct language which may fool the wider public, but it does nothing to change the desperate socio economic conditions of the long suffering First Nations. On 15 October 2007, some 300 First Nations people used the first day of parliament at the BC Legislature in Victoria to protest against the government's continued "Divide & Rule" colonial strategies which pit one First Nation against the other (left).

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Language and identity are inseparable and the loss of the one results in the loss of the other. Some 200 First Nations in BC are represented by a rich variety of languages (right). But BC has been indentified by linguists as one of the five worst global "hot spots" where indigenous languages are going extinct: Living Tongues (Institute for Endangered Languages). Most fluent speakers are elders and when they pass away, their languages will be forever lost. Colonization and forced assimilation has already caused three languages to become extinct in BC and of the 36 languages that are left, 13 are spoken by fewer than 50 people. It is well known that biodiversity and indigenous languages are inextricably linked: distinct First Nations cultures proliferated partly as a result of resource abundance. With colonization and the industrial resource economy that followed, an irreplaceable legacy of environmental knowledge has disappeared along with native plant and animal species. The pattern of language and species extinction continues today despite the heroic efforts by many communities to revive their languages and cultures and stewart their lands and waters.


First Nations Languages. (click to enlarge)
Map: UBC Museum of Anthropology

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Oral communication is the primary way of transmitting languages and hereditary First Nations knowledge, much of which is confidential within families and villages. In traditional communities, specially trained people were the equivalent of printed sources: "The (chosen) child would be raised memorizing every word, every song. As children were born, it would be decided early whether they would become a book, and which book they would become. They would often be raised by the Elder who was the book the child would become. The children would hear the book every day of their lives, from infancy until they took over as the new book. Then they would pass the book on to another child or children. Many, many books, enough to fill an enormous library, have been lost so far in Canada and the United States, and only a little of the information from these book - people was ever passed on. Every time another Elder leaves, another book becomes extinct forever" Allis Pakki Chipps - Sawyer, Northwest Coast Ethnobotany (2006).


"The Chosen Child." Drawing by Axe Petersen.
Source: Chipps, Northwest Coast Ethnobotany

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"There Was No Need For Paper." Drawing by Axe Petersen.
Source: Chipps, Northwest Coast Ethnobotany


The drawings by Axe Petersen, mother of Pakki Chipps, illustrate how "There was no need for paper or written records, because people were books." When the punitive Indian Act system was imposed in BC in 1876, it disrupted complex family relationships and led to a catastrophic loss of traditional culture. Oral family knowledge is the subject of a 2007 dissertation at the University of Victoria by Pakki Chipps, a status member of the Beecher Bay Band, who warns: "The Nitinaht language and traditional knowledge that was usually transmitted from the older to the younger family members is on the verge of being lost forever. As a member of a Nitinaht family, I have concentrated on finding the Elders in our family, who are spread all over Vancouver Island, in an attempt to try to find a way to preserve this invaluable knowledge and to pass it on to future generations" Standing On the Edge of Yesterday.

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First Nations governance according to family knowledge was severely damaged as people from different families and villages were forcibly relocated onto reserves and children removed from communities and incarcerated in residential schools. Along with traditional culture, valuable botanical knowlege was lost. Henry Joseph Chipps was born in Kyuquot (Northern Nootka); he is also a Clo-oose (Southern Nootka) hereditary chief, and a member of the Beecher Bay Band (Straits Salish). In the photo on the right, he stands behind a giant native plant - Skunk cabbage - which has many traditional uses both for food and medicine. His mother (Sarah Sawyer) told how in the cold months its large leaves could even be "wrapped around the feet and pinned with a twig" Pakki Chipps, Northwest Coast Ethnobotany (2006).


Henry Chipps with a Skunk cabbage.
Photo: Pakki Chipps

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Copyright: All Rights Reserved. Researched, written, compiled, formatted, hyperlinked and encoded by Dr. Karen Wonders. Images and intellectual property rights reside with the credited owner. Commercial transmission and/or reproduction requires written permission. Use for educational and research purposes requires proper citation.