Specific Claims Tribunal Rules in Favour of Band in Village Lands Claim
WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. -- On Friday, February 28th the Specific Claims Tribunal released its decision finding that the Williams Lake Band was wrongfully dispossessed of its village lands in Williams Lake in the late 19th century. Judge Harry Slade held Canada accountable for the Crown’s failure to protect these village lands from non-Indian settlement.
“We’re elated with the Tribunal’s decision,” said the Band’s Chief Ann Louie. “For over 150 years our Chiefs and Elders have been decrying the fact that we were pushed off our village lands. This decision clearly says our dispossession from our lands was wrong.”
The facts of the claim go back over 150 years, to colonial times. The Colony, under the leadership of Governor Douglas, had a long standing policy of protecting Indian villages for the benefit of Indian tribes. So, while the Colony was encouraging settlers to come to British Columbia and to take up lands, settlers were prohibited by law from taking up lands that were the sites of Indian villages or settlements.
In the mid-19th century, the Band had a village site in what is now known as Williams Lake. It was there that they had cabins, houses, a church, and gravesites. These were also the lands they used to sustain their way of life.
In 1879, Chief William, wrote a letter that was published in the British Colonist newspaper and widely circulated, describing his peoples’ desperate condition on account of the settlers’ actions:
The land on which my people lived for five hundred 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 the plough.
The Tribunal’s decision confirms that colonial and federal officials, knowing full well the circumstances, failed to do their jobs to protect the Band’s village lands. Officials should have never let the Band’s village lands be taken up by settlers. And, when they found out that these lands had been pre-empted, they should have taken the lands back for the Band’s benefit.
“The hurt described by Chief William, the pain of having our lands taken from us, has been passed on from generation to generation,” said Chief Louie. “Our former Chiefs and Elders instilled in me the need to resolve this wrong. With Judge Slade’s decision we received the vindication we have all been fighting for.”
Chief Louie praised her community for never giving up on the claim. At the oral hearing held on the Sugarcane Reserve in October 2012, a number of Band members testified about the peoples’ ancestral and ongoing connections with the village lands. One of the witnesses who testified was Elder Agnes Anderson, the great-granddaughter of Chief William, and grandmother to Chief Louie. Mrs. Anderson passed away in March of 2013.
“My grandma and our other Elders are smiling down on the Band today,” said Chief Louie.
The Specific Claims Tribunal is an independent and impartial body that was established by the federal government in 2008. As promised by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Indian Affairs, the Tribunal provides resolution, once and for all, for First Nations’ historic grievances. The Tribunal issues final and binding decisions that allow the federal government and First Nations to achieve closure on claims and reduce the time and expenses associated with litigation. The Tribunal has the power to award monetary compensation only; it cannot order that lands be returned. Arguments as to the amount of money owing to the Band will be dealt with in the next phase of the proceedings before the Tribunal.
“We are hopeful that Canada will act honourably in response to the Tribunal’s decision,” said Chief Louie. “The path to reconciliation requires a fair and just resolution of this long outstanding grievance.”
For more information, please contact please contact Kirk Dressler, Williams Lake Indian Band Communications Officer at (250) 296-3507 ext. 116 or firstname.lastname@example.org