The Tsilhqot’in Nation achieved a significant milestone Friday when leaders signed a letter of understanding with the Canadian government to negotiate in good faith and work toward reconciliation.
In front of a crowded room at the Toosey Health Centre, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and the Chiefs from all seven Tsilhqot’in communities signed the agreement.
Ever since the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its unanimous judgement on June 26, 2014, recognizing Aboriginal title for the Tsilhqot’in people, the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) has been trying to get Canada to the negotiating table.
“It is essential we get moving and moving as quickly as we can,” TNG tribal chair Chief Joe Alphonse said. “The government process is slow, but we are trying to ensure there are not any delays on our side.”
Minister Bennett stressed the importance of her being in Toosey and on the land to sign the agreement.
“It is good to be here to represent the government of Canada and the Prime Minister,” Bennett said. “We have met many times in my office and in Vancouver, and this is a culmination of the fact that we need to be on the same a page and where we need to go.”
Bennett quoted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying there is no relationship more important to him and to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous people.
“You all know too well that through successive federal governments, Indigenous people have suffered physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Bennett said. “As we try to make amends we know there are wounds that cannot be healed and there is a stain on Canadian history that cannot be erased.”
Reconciliation means that the truth can never be ignored, she added.
“As we work on a new path we are focused on the life of your people and how things have to change,” she said. “The time began to change in 2014 when the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that Tsilhqot’in people have rights and title over 1,750 square kilometres in Interior B.C. near Williams Lake. It was the first time in Canadian history that Aboriginal title was recognized and it happened right here.”
Fighting back his tears, Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William stood quietly at the podium before he made a statement.
“As a nation this is amazing,” William said. “I think of our former Chiefs and our elders. There is a lot of history.”
There is already the five-year accord with the provincial government and it will take two years for a similar agreement with the federal government, William said.
“From February on there will be tons of meetings to establish a framework for title lands. We have a lot of work to do. I am looking forward to it and excited,” he added.
Former National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and his partner Heather Squire, who have been hired by the TNG to help with the transition, attended the ceremony.
“I want to commend all of you Chiefs and all of you people for taking the path of negotiations, it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “There’s no bigger whale that’s been landed on the shores of Indian title and rights than the Tsilhqot’in decision. That’s your victory. It’s not just for you as Tsilhqot’in people it’s for Indigenous people across the land.”
Looking to Bennett, Atleo challenged her and the federal government.
“I do encourage Canada to see this as nation to nation. Be bold and be vulnerable because the trust the Chiefs have talked about is desperately needed,” Atleo said. “We know this is just the start.”
The letter of understanding promises that two sides will make their best efforts to negotiate a Reconciliation Framework Agreement by January 2019.