Skip to main content

Treaty troubles

Boundary disputes, broken histories hound Vancouver Island;s First Nations

PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia - Vancouver Island's first aboriginal treaty in more than 150 years is facing stiff opposition. Not from governments, or the many small towns and cities that border proposed settlement lands, but from neighboring First Nations.

''This supposed treaty is nothing more than a government-assisted land grab,'' said Les Sam, chief councilor of the Tseshaht First Nations. ''They're claiming lands that have been ours for hundreds of years: Lands that became ours through marriages and potlatches, lands and rivers that our ancestors fought and died for in bitter wars. With the stroke of a pen, we're being sold out.''

The Maa-nulth Treaty was itself born of a bitter dispute. Part of a powerful alliance of all west coast Vancouver Island First Nations, the five First Nations of the Maa-nulth Treaty Group were once members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council treaty table - a confederation of 13 First Nations.

After a decade of intense negotiations with the governments of Canada and British Columbia, an agreement-in-principle was signed between the three levels of government, which would form the foundation of a final treaty. The first step toward ratification was a vote by members of the 13 First Nations. It was split: Six First Nations voted in favor of the deal, and six voted against. After a year of heated debate, five of the six First Nations that voted in favor of the deal separated from the NTC and negotiated a final agreement of their own.

''We're very pleased with the result,'' said Robert Dennis, chief councilor of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. ''Our people don't want to be wards of the state. We want to create our own destiny, and this agreement, which was negotiated by our people for our people, restores our ability to be the strong, proud, self-governing people we've been since time began.''

Ratified resoundingly by members of the Huu-ay-aht, Uchucklesaht, Ucluelet, Toquaht and Kyuquot/Checleseht First Nations this spring, the deal has also been endorsed in the British Columbia Legislature and now awaits federal approval by Parliament in Ottawa.

But the treaty is still causing turmoil among neighboring First Nations.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

''They [treaty negotiators] aren't listening to their own elders,'' said Ditidaht elder Ernie Chester. ''They're claiming our traditional villages as theirs and even their elders are telling them that. Villages where our warriors once lived. The village I was born in will now be Huu-ay-aht, but I'm not Huu-ay-aht - I'm Ditidaht,'' he exclaimed.

The problem is the clash of cultures.

Boundaries between First Nations changed and bent over thousands of years. Intertribal marriages, potlatches celebrating heroic deeds, brutal wars: all shifted agreed-upon borders between nations. Stories of the shifts passed down through oral traditions, as witnesses were sworn to keep the stories alive in their families from one generation to the next.

But the residential school era caused a huge break in that chain as three generations of aboriginal children were forced to ignore traditional teachings, forget their languages and cultures, and accept the lessons of the European settlers.

Today, as negotiators try to sift through differing stories of where boundaries lie, conflicting stories and timelines make consensus almost impossible. But British Columbia needs treaties.

Only a few of the province's 203 First Nations have treaties, and with dozens of court cases affirming the existence of aboriginal rights and title on both public and private lands in British Columbia, the government launched the British Columbia Treaty Process with willing nations in 1991.

This year, two First Nations groups completed the six-stage negotiation process: the Tsawwassen First Nations near Vancouver, and the Maa-nulth First Nations of the west coast of Vancouver Island. Both treaties have drawn the ire of their traditional neighbors.

''The B.C. government set out the process, and all boundary issues were to be settled before the end of stage four, the agreement-in-principle stage,'' Sam said. ''The government broke their own rules. Our neighbors have broken ancient protocols. We won't allow this to happen to our lands.''

The federal government is expected to begin debate on the Maa-nulth Treaty next year, and neighboring nations have vowed to go to Ottawa to prevent its passing into law.