British Columbians are in for a big shock when ownership of large parts of the province switches from the Crown to First Nations, says Aboriginal rights and title lawyer Jack Woodward.
Woodward, who acts on behalf of First Nations in court, believes it’s going to be a big adjustment but that’s going to be a good thing for the province.
“Over the next generation, we’re going to see a replacement of ownership of large parts of the province,” Woodward said during a one-hour presentation hosted by the Campbell River Mirror on Zoom March 18 entitled Understanding Indigenous Rights and Title in Canada.
The shift in ownership will be from what is normally called Crown ownership to Indigenous ownership, “Not for the entire province but…for fairly large chunks of it,” he said.
The public was invited to listen into a conversation between Woodward and Binny Paul, the Campbell River Mirror’s Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. Woodward is currently representing the Nuchatlaht First Nation, which has received a trial date of March 15, 2022 from the B.C. Supreme Court to proceed with its Aboriginal land title case. The Nuchatlaht case is significant as it could pave the way for other First Nations in B.C.
The Nuchatlaht case is a direct application of the precedent-setting 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision, where the Supreme Court of Canada granted declaration of aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in the Interior of British Columbia to the First Nation. Woodward was the lawyer for Tsilhqot’in Nation too.
In his March 18 presentation, Woodward said the change in ownership of large chunks of land in B.C. from Crown – or public – ownership to Indigenous ownership means that the land will be under local control. It won’t be under the control of distant capitals – like Victoria and Ottawa – nor foreign corporate head offices.
“Unfortunately, the history of British Columbia has been a history of resource giveaways so that now much of the forests of British Columbia are actually owned by corporations that are owned by foreigners,” Woodward said, “so the province doesn’t belong to British Columbia now anyway.”
But you can expect that to change and it’s going to be a “big shock and a big surprise and a big adjustment for the system to get used to,” Woodward said.
“There’s going to be a different landlord,” he said. “It’s going to be a local landlord, not a foreign landlord.”
Two conditions lead Woodward to the belief that that will be a good thing for the province: a traditional respect for land and the environment in First Nations culture and a legal obligation to protect it.
Traditionally speaking, you might say that First Nations are more likely to be better stewards of the land than in the present system where you have governments in Ottawa and Victoria that are somewhat remote from the local territory. But Woodward says First Nations are more respectful of the natural environment and the lands around, generally speaking, and have a natural inclination to be better stewards of the lands and resources.
“Close to the land, close to their resources,” Woodward said.
Meanwhile, legally, precedent under Canadian law has established that there is an inherent limitation on Aboriginal title and that limit is that First Nations own the land but they’re not allowed to destroy it, Woodward said. Unlike the governments of both Canada and British Columbia which claim such a degree of ownership to the extent that it allows them to destroy land.
“When First Nations do assume ownership of their land, they, unlike federal and provincial governments, are not allowed to destroy the fundamental economic value and productivity of the land,” Woodward said, “so, they’re forced by our legal system to be good stewards.”
Woodward’s wide-ranging presentation touched on numerous other aspects of the Aboriginal rights and title question, including the precedent setting royal Proclamation of 1763 as well as the implications of the Indian Act, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and more.