150 Mile resident Neil Sterritt will be one of 16 British Columbians appointed to prestigious Order of British Columbia this year.
Sterritt is being recognized for his work with the groundbreaking Delgumuukw case, a landmark Supreme Court decision that confirmed the existence of Aboriginal title in B.C. and that continues to impact court cases on Aboriginal rights and title, as well as his continued work with First Nations communities on self-governance.
“It’s certainly humbling,” said Sterritt, adding that while he is being recognized for his involvement in the Delgumuukw case, he was certainly not alone in bringing it forward.
“A court case like that, really involved a whole army of people. No one person can accomplish that alone. We had a number of Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en leaders. It wasn’t just me, a huge staff and an incredible number of volunteers and lawyers,” he said, adding that the hereditary leaders especially — leaders born in the late 1800s or early 1900s — took a huge risk to go to court.
“No one can do this on their own, I just happened to be recognized.”
Sterritt is Gitxsan, and in 1984 was the president of the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council when he and a group of Elders frustrated by a lack of progress on land claims, filed a statement of claim in the provincial court registry.
The subsequent trial would last 374 days and set numerous precedents for court cases facing First Nations communities.
Being recognized now for that marks some of the change both the courts and governments have taken in addressing Aboriginal rights and title, said Sterritt.
“The B.C. government never ever acknowledged that there was Aboriginal title or Aboriginal rights in B.C. until 1992 or 1993 and that was after our case,” said Sterritt.
“It was a long, not just a legal struggle but a political struggle, and there’s a huge difference today between where we are today and where we were in 1975,” he said.
“The biggest challenge was changing the minds of people and changing the minds of the federal government and then also convincing more and more people throughout B.C. and Canada that there was a right to be wronged based on a lot of things, not just legal rights.”
While there is still a long way to go according to Sterritt, the next step, in particular for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en will be to play a major economic role within their territory, as well as encouraging youth to continue the changes that his generation helped begin.
“Elders have blessed us back in the 70s and 80s and 90s and it’s our turn to start blessing our youth and bringing them along,” he said.
While now semi-retired, since the trial Sterritt has continued to work in governance with First Nations, leading governance workshops with First Nations communities both within Canada and with Indigenous communities outside of Canada.
“I decided that what I wanted to do was work where the rubber hits the road and the rubber really hits the road in the communities and that’s where leadership and people need to understand what is involved in running an organization and making it work properly,” he said.
In addition to recognizing the people of his community who helped with the court case, Sterritt said he owes a large debt to his wife, Barbara.
“I have a wife who allowed me the space to indulge in the Aboriginal title and rights movement, which really it was a passion,” he said. “So the Order of B.C. that I happen to be getting is as much hers as it is mine.”
Sterritt will receive the honour in person at a ceremony in Victoria on Dec. 14. He will be joining 418 other British Columbians who have been named to the order.
Last month, Sterritt was also awarded a honorary Doctor of Laws at the University of Victoria.