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Governments failing to honour Douglas treaty: chief

Dec 20 2011

Just before Christmas in 1854, the Snuneymuxw First Nation and James Douglas, governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, signed a treaty.

It was a respectful, government-to-government agreement that promised to protect the Snuneymuxw way of life, said Chief Douglas White, who heads the 1,700-member Nanaimo band today.

So, why, on the 157th anniversary of that signing, is the band still fighting for the basic rights promised in the treaty, asked White, who is hoping to ramp up meetings with the federal and provincial governments to gain access to some of the few remaining parcels of Crown land in the area.

"We need to address the injustice that my people have found themselves in that has created grinding poverty," he said in an interview. "People here simply have no room to live."

All growth is off-reserve because areas promised to Snuneymuxw in the treaty, including traditional winter villages — which became Departure Bay and downtown Nanaimo — are in private hands, White said.

The band has about 200 hectares of reserve land. The main reserve comprises about 16 hectares surrounded by urban development.

Traditional livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and shellfish harvesting, promised in the treaty, are impossible in many areas and Snuneymuxw has been left out of modern economic development, said White, a lawyer.

He blames many of the problems on government's reluctance to admit that the Douglas Treaties are binding, despite numerous wins by First Nations in the courts.

Between 1850 and 1854, Douglas, who was also chief factor of Fort Victoria, made a series of 14 land purchases from aboriginal peoples. The Douglas Treaties cover about 930 square kilometres of land around Victoria, Saanich, Sooke, Nanaimo and Port Hardy.

"Everyone in the world is making money right under our noses and we are not getting one penny of that economic activity," said White, who is hoping meetings with the federal and provincial governments will re-educate people about the promises in the treaties.

"The people in every part of Canada need to sit down and look hard at their relationship with aboriginal people," said Douglas, who would not rule out more court cases.

The treaties promised to protect "village sites and enclosed fields," and to allow hunting and fishing on First Nations territories.

However, within a short time, many treaty conditions had been abrogated, exacerbated by the massive E&N land grant that put most of east Vancouver Island in private hands.

Since then, First Nations and governments have been fighting about the validity of some treaty provisions.

Aboriginal Affairs Canada spokesman Karl Freeborn said Canada recognizes the Douglas Treaties as being protected under the constitution.

"There is, however, some uncertainty regarding the scope, application and meaning of Douglas Treaty rights," he said.

"Consequently, any assertions of Douglas Treaty rights are reviewed on a case-by-case basis."

The province respects and recognizes the historic treaties and consults with Douglas Treaty nations on any decision that might affect treaty rights on traditional territory, Aboriginal Relations spokeswoman Maria Wilkie said.

"We are especially aware of the requirement for consultation on any decisions on the land that affects their hunting and fishing rights," she said.

The province is also talking to Snuneymuxw about incremental treaty agreements and has provided $3 million for economic and business development, she said.

A conference on pre-confederation treaties will be held at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo next May.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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