First Nations will play a bigger role

If there was any doubt First Nations are going to feature prominently in the world’s perception of Vancouver and Whistler in 2010 that was put to rest with the unveiling Tuesday of VANOC’s mascots. Miga, Quatchi and Sumi were “inspired by local Aboriginal mythological creatures” and are “a key component of the Games’ identity”, according to a press release.

From mascots to Ilanaaq to performances at the opening and closing ceremonies and Live Sites, First Nations’ culture will permeate official Olympic events. And who knows what sort of demonstrations disgruntled First Nations members may stage as unofficial events.

But the changing relationship between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities in B.C. goes far beyond plush toys, cultural symbols and the Olympics. The heart of that relationship is land and who controls it. And last week’s B.C. Supreme Court decision in the Tsilhqot’in case underlines that.

Justice David Vickers found, after 339 days of trial, that the Xeni Gwet’in of the central interior met the legal test for aboriginal title to 200,000 ha of their traditional territory. However, he could not formally award aboriginal title because the case put forward didn’t allow him to find for anything less than the entire 444,000 ha the Xeni Gwet’in claimed.

The judge also limited his findings of title to a non-binding opinion and directed the Xeni Gwet’in, the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia to negotiate based on his ruling.

If this sounds confusing, it is. The decision will likely be appealed and it may be years before the Tsilhqot’in case is completely sorted out. But the decision builds on earlier court findings, like Delgamuukw in 1997, that have generally supported First Nations arguments while failing to define exactly what that means on the ground. What British Columbians can take from this is the knowledge that First Nations are going to play a much bigger role in what have been non-native affairs in the years ahead.

The Olympics are an early manifestation of this. From the beginning, people involved in the Vancouver 2010 bid worked to include “the four host First Nations”, the Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh, on whose traditional territory the Games will take place. At this end of the Olympic corridor, the Squamish and Lil’wat were provided with 300 acres of land as part of the deal for supporting the Olympics. That, however, is a small portion of the more than 600,000 ha the two First Nations claim title to.

To some, that claim may sound ominous. But any final decisions on title to that land are a long way off, with the Squamish in the treaty process and the Lil’wat choosing not to enter into it. Moreover the record to date suggests there may be more mutual agreement than some would think.

Unlike the Xeni Gwet’in, whose claim grew out of frustration with logging of lands traditionally used for hunting and trapping, the Squamish, and to a lesser extent the Lil’wat, have participated in land and resource planning with provincial agencies and local groups. The native and non-native communities have reached consensus on how the vast majority of lands in the region should be used.

On those lands the First Nations want to develop they have generally made their intentions clear. Moreover, with a total population of less than 4,000, the Lil’wat and Squamish have needed and have sought partners for developments such as Porteau Cove and lands in Whistler. Agreements with developers of the Ashlu power project and the Garibaldi at Squamish resort have also been reached.

Business partnerships are also a product of Olympic development, with the Lil’wat Nation’s Resource Business Ventures and the Squamish Nation’s Newhaven companies both having contracts to build the Nordic centre. A contract with Peter Kiewit Sons, the company in charge of the Highway 99 project, is worth $2.1 million to the Lil’wat.

There still are and always will be differences of opinion on what development in the corridor, whether by First Nations or non-First Nations, should look like. Plans for a First Nations golf course in the Callaghan, for example, remain unclear.

However, the Olympics have brought native and non-native communities in the Sea to Sky region closer together and led to greater understanding of one another. They are still distinct communities, but through the 2010 Legacies Society, the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre and various business ventures First Nations will play a much bigger role in Whistler and throughout the corridor in the future, regardless of court decisions.

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