Supreme Court sides with Williams Lake First Nation in ancestral land dispute

The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with a British Columbia First Nation in a dispute over its traditional lands. A statue outside the Supreme Court of Canada is shown in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with a British Columbia First Nation in a dispute over its traditional lands.

In a split decision released Friday, the high court restored a tribunal ruling in favour of the Williams Lake Indian Band, which had argued the pre-Confederation colony of British Columbia failed to protect its territory from encroaching settlers.

The band also said Canada neglected to adequately remedy the wrong following B.C.'s entry into Confederation in 1871.

Instead of reclaiming the band's ancestral village lands, Canada set aside different, nearby territory for the First Nation.

The band is one of 17 communities of the Shuswap Nation, which traditionally occupied lands around Williams Lake. The municipality, 550 kilometres north of Vancouver, now has a population of 11,000.

Seven years ago, the band brought a claim related to about 1,000 acres at the foot of Williams Lake, including the present city's downtown.

In 2014, the federal Specific Claims Tribunal upheld the band's arguments concerning the original lands, finding that both the colony and Canada had breached their duties.

The Federal Court of Appeal overturned the tribunal's decision two years ago, concluding that Canada's post-Confederation actions were sufficient.

A majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the band had a specific interest in the lands at issue and that both pre-Confederation British Columbia and Canada had breached their obligations in failing to respect this interest.

The court's decision now clears the way for the tribunal to consider compensation.

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