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The Westbank Harvest

By Isabel Heaman

The Westbank First Nation has started to cut trees on their traditional territory without a government licence. The seeds of this action were sown a long time ago.

For over a century B.C. politicians denied that aboriginal title existed, that the aboriginal people had any claim to the land they had lived on for thousands of years. Some still take that view, even after the Supreme Court ruling on Delgamuukw upheld that aboriginal title had never been extinguished in B.C. Vocal and influential publicists such as Mel Smith and Gordon Gibson, understandably beloved of the press barons, still try to discredit any ruling that upsets the status quo.

In 1990 the B.C. government of the day, in legal difficulties over land title, finally agreed to negotiate with the First Nations and started the B.C. Treaty Process. The process was, however, flawed from the outset. The federal and B.C. Governments arbitrarily set the conditions for negotiation, something that is illegal under international treaty law. No compensation was to be offered to First Nations for resources extracted before settlement. Meanwhile, forest companies who lost timber rights would be compensated in full. Further, resource companies were entitled to continue extraction while negotiations proceeded. As negotiations moved at a snail’s pace, the rate of extraction speeded up. First Nations saw that any forest land they might acquire would have been denuded and of little commercial value. In this case, the Westbank people were offered a derisory amount of timber (the equivalent of 10 hectares) while a larger parcel on their traditional territory was reserved for a bidding process that favours the large operators. This is the land that is now being logged. (Provincial code standards are being applied.)

Protests by the First Nations have gone unheeded as governments blandly restate their initial position. Government delays and denials have now been met by confrontation and direct action. The issue is one that unites all aboriginal organizations and groups, even those with fundamental differences as to whether negotiation or litigation offers the best prospect. The situation, as Chief Art Manuel says, is that the government is still in pre-Delgamuukw mode.

While the federal and B.C. governments pay lip service to the Supreme Court ruling which laid upon them the responsibility for meaningful consultation on land title issues affecting First Nations, they show little sign of having taken the message to heart. There was no consultation before the signing of the salmon treaty with the U.S., no consultation on the expropriation of the Nanoose testing range, and no consultation on the proposal to transfer crown land to a private holding of MacMillan Bloedel. Yet these areas are on traditional, unceded territory, areas that are theoretically on the table during negotiations and that have resources of crucial importance to the survival and economic well-being of First Nations.

The stands of lodgelpole pine that the Westbank people are logging have taken perhaps one hundred years to mature. The harvest may be symbolic in more than one way.