It was a day for the history books.
Under brilliant blues skies and with the majestic Coast Mountains rising above Chilko Lake behind them, members of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation welcomed Premier Christy Clark Wednesday as she set foot on Aboriginal title land for the first time in Canadian history.
“This is huge. This is history,” Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William told leaders and members gathered at the community’s traditional village, located near the west end of the Nemiah Valley, for the occasion.
“We have an opportunity to move forward and learn from the past … to change the future.”
Clark took a bold step toward that future by signing a Letter of Understanding with the chiefs during her afternoon visit.
The document, which is intended to build a more positive relationship between the Province and the TNG and also sets the groundwork for long-term reconciliation efforts, was in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s Tsilhqot’in Nation Rights and Title decision in June, which granted the Tsilhqot’in First Nation more than 1,700 square kilometres of land following three decades of court battles.
“This agreement commits us to working in partnership as we explore how to implement the Tsilhqot’in Nation judgement. The Supreme Court of Canada has given us clarity and it has give us direction, and now we must begin the hard work as leaders and as peoples of reconciliation,” Clark told the crowd.
“We cannot change the past. We all know that. But we can change the future and I have always believed that it is up to us, each of us in our lives, to grasp that opportunity, as all of those tenacious leaders for the last 30 years have done.”
The fact that Clark made the time and effort to meet Tsilhqot’in leaders and members on their own title lands was not lost on Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chairman of Tsilhqot’in National Government.
“It’s an exciting day,” Alphonse said, noting it’s now time for the Federal government to follow suit.
Following speeches in which leaders on both sides expressed a desire to move forward together, Clark, Tsilhqot’in Chiefs, and John Rustad, Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, signed the Letter of Understanding.
Clark said the agreement sets out how the two governments will work together.
“First, addressing the issues of the past, including the wrongful trial and hanging of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs in 1864 and 1865. Beginning immediate work of the present, by establishing tables that will work together at the highest levels to implement the court’s decision. Third, the work of the future. Longer term reconciliation initiatives, exploring economic opportunities to improve health and the economic well being as well of the education of the Tsilhqot’in people,” Clark said.
There will be many hard topics to discuss at the table, including everything from hammering out hunting and fishing management, to forestry issues and of course the more contentious matter of resource extraction.
Chief Roger William promised the transition to First Nations management will be a positive one for everyone, including their non-First Nations neighbours and contractors, while Xeni Gwet’in councillor Marilyn Baptiste said protection of their pristine lands and air will always come before any development.