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Historic Supreme Court decision a crucial step for Indigenous rights in Canada

    July 15, 2014

    On June 26, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada found that the Tsilhqot’in people continue to hold legal title to some 2000km2 in the heart of their traditional territory in central British Columbia.

    This landmark Supreme Court decision lends further weight to Amnesty International's position that the Canadian government must not approve a project of this magnitude against the wishes of affected First Nations.

    It’s hard to overstate the importance of this historic ruling, both for the Tsilhqot’in people, who first went to court to protect their land rights more than 20 ago, and for other Indigenous nations across Canada.

    Canadian law has long recognized that lands currently claimed by the provincial governments may in fact lawfully belong to Indigenous peoples. Until this point, however, the recognition has been largely abstract and readily ignored by governments.

    The new ruling by the Supreme Court found that the Tsilhqot’in had proven their ongoing ownership of a large tract of their traditional territory. The Court also firmly rejected the claim by the federal and provincial governments that the land owned by the Tsilhqot’in could be arbitrarily reduced to a few village sites and fishing rocks within this larger territory.

    Critically, the Court found that development on land owned by Indigenous peoples requires the consent of those nations.

    While the Court’s interpretation of Indigenous title applies only to lands where Indigenous ownership has been recognized, the Court itself pointed out that governments and industry should take note of the possibility of such ownership eventually being established.

    Much of the route of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline crosses territory where there are no treaties with Indigenous peoples and the underlying issue of Indigenous land title has never been resolved. These issues were excluded from the mandate of the public review on which the government says it based its decision to approve Northern Gateway.

    Amnesty International had joined with the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers) to intervene in the Tsilhqot’in Supreme Court case. We issued a joint statement welcoming the decision and “the cautionary message that the Court sent to governments and private developers looking to push ahead with projects in lands where, like much of BC, the issue of Indigenous title has not yet been resolved.”

    Thank you to the tens of thousands who have stood behind Amnesty International's actions in support of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.