Why the Tide Has Turned in the Fight to Preserve Canada’s Wilderness

A landmark Canadian Supreme Court decision places native people’s land rights above industrial interests.

A Kermode bear in British Columbia. (Photo: Stephen Harrington/Getty Images)

Jul 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

The recent landmark Canadian Supreme Court decision granting land rights to the Tsilhqot’in First Nations for a long-contested 1,750-square-kilometer swath of British Columbia could be a conservation coup of historic proportions, with consequences for wilderness battles raging across the country.

“Aboriginal title confers the right to use and control the land and to reap the benefits flowing from it,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Countless contested land claims—including areas with proposed mines and oil pipelines—will now be called into question.

Past rulings have established a duty for government and industry to seek “consultation” from First Nations over proposed developments and resource extraction. No longer. The unanimous Supreme Court decision requires the consent of native title holders.

“We’ve pretty much blown the doors off the colonial notion of denying indigenous land rights,” said Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.

Past court rulings had distinguished between title claims based on permanent habitation by First Nations and land used only seasonally. The Supreme Court ruling does away with that distinction.

“This decision goes so much further than previous decisions and gives rights to the land—not in a token way, where you establish traditional use sites for ceremonial or burial places,” said Peter Wood, a campaign director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society British Columbia. “This extends to the total usage of land required to maintain their traditional way of life. Essentially this says first rights of the land goes to First Nations. We’re still contemplating the repercussions, but it seems like a game changer.”

The land claim that triggered the ruling includes the Nemaiah Valley, known for its rivers, remote forests, grizzlies, and wild horses. It has been a flashpoint since the 1860s, when a road-building crew of white settlers was attacked and killed. Chiefs of the local First Nations tribes were rounded up and hanged in retaliation.

These days, the conflict is over pipelines and mining. Taseko Mines has twice proposed a $1.5 billion gold and copper mine, and the Canadian federal government has twice rejected the project for not meeting environmental standards. Wood believes the Supreme Court decision will stop the mine once and for all.

Wood and other conservationists are taking stock of land where First Nations communities have traditional claims. The ruling could prove decisive in battles to form a new Okanogan National Park, to protect the coastal Great Bear Rainforest, and to preserve the Sacred Headwaters, which is the confluence of three key salmon runs in northern British Columbia. All the tracts of land are mineral rich and have traditionally been used by First Nations people.

The same day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the Tahltan First Nations people submitted a land claim to preserve the Sacred Headwaters. Phillip believes the ruling puts in jeopardy permits the government has issued for mining and oil and gas development.

“The ramifications are going to be enormous,” he said. “The government completely gutted the environmental protection regulatory regime to facilitate large-scale resource development, and this decision brings things back into balance.”

“All levels of government and industry are hunkered down with their legal counsel in their boardrooms analyzing this decision,” Phillip added, “but they know full well that over a hundred years of denying the existence of aboriginal title are over.”