The Laksilyu clan hosted a celebration feast Saturday in Hagwilget in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa court decision.
In 1984, the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en first nations filed a joint land title action with the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The trial began in 1987.
During the trial, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en elders used oral histories as evidence of their claim. In 1991, Justice Allan McEachern ruled any title the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en may have had was extinguished when British Columbia joined the Confederation.
The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en appealed McEachern’s ruling to the Court of Appeal of British Columbia.
While the appeal decision ruled the government is required to consult with Indigenous peoples before they begin any projects that may infringe upon their rights, they ultimately agreed with McEachern that the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en did not have title to the land in question in 1993.
After treaty negotiations broke down with the Province the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled the provincial government did not have the right to extinguish the Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories. The court also recognized oral history as a legitimate form of evidence in legal proceedings.
The case also gave a definition to aboriginal title and outlined how it can be determined. Aboriginal title is defined as Indigenous peoples’ exclusive right to the land, and is recognized as an “existing aboriginal right” in section 35 of the Constitution Act.
“[The case] proved to the world we exist,” said Chief Na’Moks (John Ridsdale) of the Wet’suwet’en. “We as human beings, we as nations, have a right to have a voice.”
Chiefs and elders from different houses spoke at the feast discussing their memories of the case as well as the importance of continuing to fight for their rights. Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach also spoke at the event.
Chiefs enter Hagwilget hall
“It was a real honour to be invited to the event and to bare witness to the celebration,” said Bachrach. “Obviously the Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa court case was a monumental event, not just for the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan, but for first nations across Canada. It was a big leap forward for aboriginal law in Canada.”
Gordon Christie, professor at Peter A. Allard School of Law, said the Delgamuukw case laid the ground work for other first nations to claim aboriginal title in their territory.
“The first of those was Tsilhqot’in nation just a couple years ago,” said Christie, who specializes in aborginal law. “They were the first to actually use aboriginal title the way the court set out in Delgamuukw.”
In 2014, the Tsilhqot’in nation became the first Indigenous nation to get aboriginal title. The Supreme Court of Canada awarded them just over 1,700 kilometres of land in British Columbia.
“Now after that, that was 2014, you have quite a wave of aboriginal title cases going on across the province,” said Christie. “I think there’s now at least dozen, probably more like 15, cases on aboriginal title now.”
Thanks to the Delgamuukw case future generations of first nations people have a chance to reclaim their ancestral territory, which is exactly what the last living plaintiff in the case, Chief Wah tah K’eght (Henry Alfred) envisioned when he agreed to testify in court all those years ago.
“I made up my mind [I’m not going] to court for myself,” said Wah tah K’eght. “It’s for my grandchildren great grandchildren to come. It’s for them.”
MP Nathan Cullen statement in Parliament on Delgamuukw court decision’s 20th anniversary