By Letter to the Editor on February 26, 2020.
The Wet’suwet’en dispute over the Coastal Gaslink pipeline has generated increasing amounts of heat, but little light. I thought a review of history might help.
In 1763, the British king, George III, issued a royal proclamation requiring all colonies to negotiate land cessions with Indigenous peoples, rather than simply seizing land as they had been doing. Nova Scotia and Lower Canada ignored the proclamation. Upper Canada, though, began treaty-making, resulting in the first land cession treaty, the Treaty of Niagara, in 1764. Many others followed in Ontario.
When B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, John A. Macdonald tried to convince the colony to negotiate treaties. B.C. refused, continuing its long no-treaty policy, and Macdonald, anxious to have them join, let it slide. With a couple of exceptions, it has remained unresolved ever since. Most of B.C. remains unceded territory.
In 1867, Canada assumed the role of the Crown in taking over Indian Affairs. The new dominion promised to continue the previous rights granted to Indigenous peoples, including the 1763 Declaration. To demonstrate their willingness to do this, the Macdonald government set about negotiating land cession treaties in western Ontario and on the Prairies beginning with Treaty 1 in western Ontario in 1871. Ours is Treaty 7 (1877).
In recent years, the B.C. and Canadian governments have jointly attempted to negotiate agreements with the Indigenous nations in B.C., but with little success. The reason is that B.C. refuses to give up any land and the federal government refuses to negotiate unless the First Nations agree up front they will surrender the land. Since the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) clearly states they cannot be required to surrender their land, this has been a non-starter.
Assuming the Declaration of 1763 still applies, and I see no reason to think otherwise, who owns the unceded land in B.C.? I think the answer is clear and the Wet’suwet’en cause is just. Both law and morality seem to be on their side.
The governments of B.C. and Canada have been negligent for generations. It is finally coming home to roost. The Indigenous peoples of B.C. whose territories remain unceded, have, in the past, indicated their willingness to negotiate agreements to share the land and resources. What they have in mind remains to be seen, but we certainly need to talk. The sooner we get on with it, the better for Canada.