Canada’s Supreme Court: concrete enough to inspire hope among First Nations, and just ambiguous enough to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in those looking to exploit them. A legal battle sparked more than 20 years ago reached its “final” conclusion today, as the case of Aboriginal property rights was ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation. The Supreme Court has awarded the Tsilhqot’in “the right to control” their ancestral homeland in a verdict that has Liberal analysts thanking the heavens for such a “major victory.” Two decades ago the legal battle began when the B.C. government approved for a logging company to cut trees on land claimed by the Tsilhqot’in (a band of 3000 living in the Central Interior of British Columbia). After tens of millions of dollars were spent on this judicial challenge, the Tsilhqot’in First Nation have been granted their title to the land and can finally sleep easy knowing that corporations can’t suck out their land’s resources at a moment’s notice. Right?
Well…. kind of. What the title to the land actually means is that if the Crown wants to – hmm, let’s say hypothetically – build a pipeline through the Tsilhqot’in land, they’ll need Tsilhqot’in permission, or if not, they’ll have to justify that it’s like super-duper important that they go forward with this project, and they must “meet its fiduciary duty to the aboriginal group.” That means that if the government wants to overrule the Tsilhqot’in people’s refusal to allow development on their land, they just need to pinky-swear that they have only the noblest of intentions and pay the Natives a couple dollars in hush-money. Another backdoor in a Canadian law to let anyone do anything. Great. It looks like “right to control” doesn’t mean total control and that’s a critical distinction.
Well, it sounds like this ruling has altered just about nothing at all. Given the ‘landmark’ nature of this Supreme Court decision, rulings of this kind will be popping up all over the place, which will give Canadian judges and news-watchers alike that ‘we-done-good’ feeling that guilt-ridden white Liberals crave, all the while changing nothing on the ground for Aboriginal communities. Despite being Aboriginal “property,” the Tsilhqot’in won’t truly own the land, and someone else has the final say. Landmark, indeed.