After she was bombarded with friends hugging and squealing to welcome her home, Chiotin Alphonse said the Indigenous Land Title Express journey was amazing.
The 15-year-old Tsilhqo’tin youth was one of 24 people who travelled from Williams Lake to Ottawa to hear the historic appeal of the Tsilhqo’tin Nation’s Aboriginal Title case appeal in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Their bus arrived back in Williams Lake on Thursday, Nov. 14, and was welcomed home with a celebration in the Cariboo Memorial Complex’s Gibraltar Room.
“We stopped in every province and met with the communities,” Chiotin said. “I was so surprised at how the communities came together. Not only were we learning from the elders and the leadership, but we were learning from each other. It was an eye-opener.”
As she listened to the court proceedings, Chiotin said she felt all First Nations were being recognized and things are going to change.
“We were speaking out,” she said, smiling.
Tsilhqot’in National Government Chair Chief Joe Alphonse was in Ottawa for the appeal and said it was an emotional time for the people who have been involved since day one.
“It has been a 25-year process,” Alphonse said.
“Any time you want to fight Aboriginal title, that’s how long it’s going to take.”
The highlight for the Tsilhqot’in was having the chance to ask the highest court of the land if they own title, he explained.
“We as Tsilhqot’in believe 100 per cent that we do and that will never change, but we want Canada to recognize that.”
That recognition would enable the Tsilhqo’tin people to become part of Canada, he added.
“This should have been resolved a long time ago.”
Alphonse said there was a team of lawyers representing First Nations all across Canada and the Territories.
“To see B.C.’s lawyers and Canada’s lawyers get torn apart in court by the seven Supreme Court judges was long overdue,” Alphonse said.
“First Nations across Canada feel there’s been a log jam dealing with First Nations across Canada and we need the Supreme Court of Canada to break that log jam. I think that would be deliberate. It puts Canada and industry in such a place that they have to deal with us in a more respectful manner.”
Hugging his 11-year-old daughter Sierra, Xeni Gwet’in (Nemiah) Chief Roger William said it was an honour to be on the journey to Ottawa and back.
“I had elders tell me before the case started it may have to come to being heard in the Supreme Court of Canada to be recognized.”
Some of the elders didn’t make it to the trial, and some of the elders who testified in the trial, are no longer alive today and were not part of the journey.
“This journey was for them, for the Chilcotin Warriors of 1864, for all our residential school survivors, for all our women and children who are here with us,” William said.
Twenty-four people participated in the journey and of those 11 had testified in court.Throughout the journey the travellers felt support at every stop.
While the Supreme Court decision on the appeal will not be handed down for about six months, William said he is already feeling optimistic.
Former Xeni Gwet’in Chief Annie C. Williams participated in the journey and said she was chief when her people first began fighting for their rights and title in a trapline court case.
She had been elected the community’s first female chief in 1988 and the band filed papers in court the following year for the case.
In 2007, Williams was one of 27 elders and community members who testified in the case, she said.
As she watched the Supreme Court proceedings on a TV screen outside the court room in Ottawa on Nov. 7, Williams said she felt it went well for her people.
“I saw B.C. and Canada’s lawyers floundering,” she said.
Echoing the present chief, Williams said she feels they’ve won the appeal, but that they never lost.
“Our elders live traditionally still. They always have and always will,” she said.
“I still speak our language.”
The claim area comprises 438,000 hectares of remote territory in the Chilcotin Region.