A lodge owner operating within the Tsilhqot’in declared title area wants to be compensated so he can leave.
Hausi Wittwer has owned and operated the Chilko River Lodge for 21 years and said because of the uncertainty and his frustration he does not want to live there anymore.
“I want to be bought out with a fair price,” Wittwer said.
His business has decreased in the last three years.
Customers coming to his lodge are not high-end and if it wasn’t for repeat customers from B.C. and Switzerland he would not have survived.
“I used to get people just driving in off Highway 20, but not anymore,” he noted, adding he has not received his operating permit for the upcoming season yet, which is also a challenge.
Witter has written letters to provincial government ministers and the premier and has not heard back.
“I think it is not fair that if I write a letter to the premier and to this day there is no answer. At least give me an answer — that’s what I can expect from my leaders.”
In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Tsilhqot’in Nation declaration of Aboriginal title to 1,700 square kilometres of land.
Since then, the Xeni Gwet’in has been working with the provincial government taking on jurisdiction.
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua said his government is issuing permits to operators within the declared area and operators are expected to apply for permits through the Xeni Gwet’in government office.
Lulua said they continue to collaborate with the provincial government on permitting and the provincial government has been reminding operators that there is a new owner.
“I’ve not sure if they’ve noticed, but five years ago we won title. People seem to forget,” Lulua said.
Negotiators for the Xeni Gwet’in have worked on making offers to buy some owners out, Lulua confirmed.
“There are guidelines on how they get bought out and there are things that are being argued here that are understandable from them and from us,” he said. “We are willing to buy any of those properties, but at the end of the day, if they are asking for hardship dollars we don’t pay hardship dollars.”
Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation communications director Sarah Plank said the Tsilhqot’in Decision by the Supreme Court of Canada has raised unique and complex new issues that the province is still working through together with Tsilhqot’in Nation, the federal government and affected tenure-holders.
Similar to private property, Aboriginal title means the Tsilhqot’in Nation owns the lands and resources in the Declared Title Area and has the right to decide how those lands and resources are accessed and used, and to benefit from economic activity on them, Plank told the Tribune.
“We recognize this is a challenging situation for tenure holders impacted by the decision, as these tenures represent their families’ livelihoods,” Plank said. “The province continues to work with the Tsilhqot’in National Government and the Xeni Gwet’in to achieve both short- and long-term certainty for all those affected by the decision.”
It is complex work in “uncharted waters,” and there are not easy answers, she added, noting the province is committed to working through the issues in a thoughtful way.
“We continue to recommend tenure holders engage with Xeni Gwet’in,” she said. “At the same time, we are also providing some funding to support Xeni Gwet’in’s path forward and to create more governance capacity to effectively manage the title lands – this includes issuing permits to guide outfitters operating in the Declared Title Lands.”
Plank said the province remains a neutral party in any purchase negotiations between the tourism operators and the First Nation.
“The complex challenges raised by this ruling illustrate why it is so important for us to focus our reconciliation efforts on collaborative negotiations rather than litigation.”
Lulua said a title-tenure meeting is scheduled for March in Xeni Gwet’in for all operators in the area.
“Some lodge owners have worked well with us while others are challenging us and think they are going to beat us,” he added. “Title lands are on the scoreboard and no one can take it down, not even ourselves, so the sooner they understand that the better for them.”