An important asset for the Haisla Nation in our work in recent years to create sustainable and realistic economic opportunities that benefit our people and every British Columbian has been our Aboriginal Rights and Title (ART).
While many people have heard and read this phrase, the understanding of what it means and why it matters is lacking.
Aboriginal rights are practices or entitlement of central importance to aboriginal people (hunting, fishing gathering).
Aboriginal title is the right to the land itself.
What the varying case law that has been developed really boils down to is that issues raised by the original inhabitants of the land in question, such as Haisla traditional territory, have to be dealt with honourably and with integrity by the Crown.
That was not the case in the past. How our land was taken and divided up amongst non-Haisla was unfair, unjust, and illegal.
There are ways to address what happened in the past but, for the most part, it is time to move forward for the betterment of all.
And this is why ART is so very important – it ensures that the Haisla are involved in any decision that affects our land or practices.
When a first nation agrees to the benefits provided by a project, that first nation has deliberately chosen to limit – or not to hunt, fish, gather or perform ceremonial events in the proposed areas for these projects – for an extended period of time.
After this period of time has expired, the first nation expects to be able to resume these traditional practices.
The Haisla are working to achieve balance in everything we do. Yes, we support industrial development on our lands.
It must be done responsibly, and large areas of our traditional lands must be left alone.
We also will not support any use which endangers the integrity and sustainability of our territory. We believe that careful and appropriate industrial development will allow us to achieve meaningful employment and economic self-sufficiency without sacrificing the traditional territory that we hold in trust for future generations.
Over the last decade we have had significant commercial success, and we have made considerable progress towards the rehabilitation of the Kitamaat River.
This has not been easy. Generations of our leadership have fought for recognition of our rights and against the wrongful taking of our lands and waters.
Of course, different first nations have different locations, capacities, and situations that lead to different priorities and different goals.
But whenever the Crown intends to make a decision that affects traditional territory, ART comes into play.
The courts have outlined how ART must be dealt with honourably. It is up to the Crown and, if delegated by the Crown, industrial proponents to now comply with this direction.
It can be a complicated picture. ART has not been fully integrated into government’s environmental assessment processes, yet it is clear that the Crown must deal with ART and failure to do so adequately may leave an environmental assessment certificate open to challenge.
We increasingly see that proponents recognize that our ART must be addressed at an early stage. By doing so and forging respectful relationships and meaningful agreements with the Haisla, proponents are beginning to understand that their projects can proceed more smoothly and more quickly than they would if ART is not accommodated, or if they have to rely on government to ensure that ART is addressed.
Ellis Ross is the chief councillor of the Haisla Nation