The Specific Claims Tribunal held a hearing into the Williams Lake Indian Band’s (WLIB) village sites claim at Sugar Cane last week.
The village sites claim involves allegations that WLIB’s villages and settlements at the foot of Williams Lake and at Missioner Creek in the Glendale area were unlawfully pre-empted by settlers in the mid to late 1800s.
This was the first community-based hearing held by the Specific Claims Tribunal.
Chaired by the Honourable Judge Harry Slade, it was also the first to include witness testimony.
Eight WLIB members testified in the evidentiary portion of the hearing.
The witnesses, who included Chief Ann Louie, Councillor Rick Gilbert, elder Agnes Anderson, Jean William, Lynne Gilbert, Amy Sandy, Chris Wycotte, and Kristy Palmantier, provided oral history evidence about the community members’ use of the lands at the foot of Williams Lake and in Glendale, and the importance of these lands to the community today, WLIB communications manager Kirk Dressler noted in a press release.
The areas in the claim include around Scout Island, where WLIB presently has IR6, but a very small portion of it, and around the Comer Park Trailer Park area, and down toward the old Soda Creek Road, Louie said.
“Our people used to utilize from that end of the lake all the way over to where the Stampede grounds are until the highway causeway was put in and cut that off,” Louie said of the area near Scout Island.
Louie said she felt the hearings went well.
“I believe all parties involved were fair and that it was a good process, however, we’ve been down that road before, and that’s why we’re here.”
The WLIB initiated the claim in 1994 and it was ruled in favour of the band, however, the federal government declined it.
In 2002, the band pursued the Indian Claims Commission to review the claim and it was found, again, in favour of the band that the federal government had “breached its fiduciary duty” and failed to make the village sites the band claimed as reserves, Louie said.
“At that time again, the federal government did not recognize this recommendation, so we were left with no other choice in 2011, but to advance to the specific claims tribunal, which was the basis for the government initiating the process.”
Aside from the oral testimony, Judge Slade heard how in 1879, Chief William had written to the British Colonist newspaper, about what was happening to his land. At the time the chief wrote: “The land on which my people lived for 500 years was taken by a white man; he has piles of wheat and herds of cattle. We have nothing — not an acre. Another white man has enclosed the graves in which the ashes of our fathers rest, and we may live to see their bones turned over by his plough. Good friends to the Indian say that her Majesty loves her Indian subjects and will do justice. Justice is no use to a dead Indian. Land, land, a little of our land, that is all we ask from her Majesty.”
Chief William was a very active chief, Louie said, adding he was her great grandfather on her mother’s side. He was also the great grandfather of band councillor Rick Gilbert, the grandfather of Agnes Anderson, and great grandfather of Lynne Gilbert.
As part of the hearing, Judge Slade viewed the claim area in the Williams Lake and Glendale areas. The federal government is disputing the validity of the claim. Lawyers for the band and for the federal government are now drafting the legal arguments. In the new year the Specific Claims Tribunal will reconvene to hear oral legal arguments from both sides.
“Once that’s completed the judge will make a ruling,” Louie said.
That ruling will be on whether the federal government is responsible for allowing the lands to be pre-empted, for failing to inquire into the pre-emption of the village sites, failing to cancel the pre-emption, and failing to set aside the lands as reserves, said WLIB in a press release. Being able to hold the hearings in Sugar Cane alleviated the cost of travel and engaged more community members, Louie said.
“If the hearings were heard in Vancouver, WLIB would have had to pay for everything. With the claims tribunal coming here, they incur the cost. The process was the only alternative that the band was left with because if we had elected to go to court we would have been looking at a $30 million cost.”
The Specific Claims Tribunal was established in 2008 and is aimed at accelerating the resolution of specific claims in order to provide justice for First Nations claimants and certainty for government, industry and all Canadians. It has the power to award monetary compensation only; it cannot order that lands be returned.
“If we are successful we will receive a monetary fund determined by the tribunal. They can’t give us back the lands, obviously, because they have all been pre-empted. I’m hoping it will be a fair settlement for our people,” Louie said, adding she would not speculate what they would do with the funds if it is successful.
Referring to Chief William’s words in 1879, Louie suggested that they continue to impact her people today.
“He was saying the land his people lived for 500 years were totally taken up. At one point our band didn’t end up with any land at all. It was a sad situation and he was basically begging for what was rightfully his peoples’ in the beginning.”
Presently there are approximately 712 registered members in the WLIB and in mid-November the band will be holding a vote for other individuals that want to transfer to the band or become status Indians and register with the band.
“Many of them are because of the new ruling Bill C-3 where they were able to prove that their ancestors or parents were entitled to be registered. Previously the government had a law that when a registered native woman married a non-native they lost their status.
“That has been reversed and that’s what’s causing applications to come in now,” Louie said.