We have received many responses to our poll question concerning Aboriginal rights over the development of their lands. To answer our critics, yes the question was oversimplified and the lack of definition for “their lands” was intentional. We were attempting to allow our readers to consider their own definitions rather than tie them down to our definition, which may not have been inclusive.
Here is a more learned answer to the question of land ownership:
“Your question is simplified to the point that the results can only be meaningless, reflecting more emotion than reasoned logic seasoned by an understanding of the reality. Most of Canada east of the Rockies (now including Nunavut) is covered by ‘treaties’, agreements between the FNs [First Nations] and the non-FN groups that set out the terms of land use between the parties to the agreements.
“Occasionally within the boundaries of the treaty areas are parcels/areas of land under dispute between the parties (FN and Canada) for any one of a number of reasons. Experience has shown members of both parties can carry incorrect perceptions and/or expectations about these disputed areas. The disputes need to be resolved via either negotiations or the courts. In some instances the FNs will be right, so they must have the opportunity to use existing processes to test their interpretations.
“They [First Nations] should not hold a veto but need to carry an opportunity to a legal or negotiated resolution of the difference of opinion driving the dispute. In British Columbia much of the land base has never been subject to treaty, and the courts are clear in the fact that FN consequently retain some level of Aboriginal rights to the land base.
“The treaty process has been laboriously slow. The courts are only now beginning to resolve a few of the disputes, and the process is still too immature to allow for any predictable result. In these areas the case for a veto on development by FNs before their rights are infringed upon is more easily made.
“Your question simply does not allow for consideration of the realities of the permutations and combinations of rights in land that exist across this great country.”
One reader wrote of her first-hand experience:
“I am opposed to the proposed uranium exploration near Sharbot Lake. I am also opposed to the way in which the mining companies and their lawyers treated First Nations leaders in calling for stiff prison sentences and heavy fines that none of them have the means to pay. I was in court when the sentences were requested for Paula Sherman, Harold Perry and Robert Lovelace. I do not believe the sentences they received were fair. They were another example of the mining industry use of large firms to carry out their unfair treatment of aboriginal peoples. Of course, local people and First Nations leaders have no chance against big business and big guns from the legal community.
“I was in the court room and watched Harold Perry at 78 years of age hang his head in his hands and cry as the judge told him he was forbidden to protest to protect the land from harm. He had suffered a heart attack two weeks prior to sentencing. I watched as his elderly wife stroked his arm. I also watched as the victorious lawyers immediately got on their BlackBerrys as soon as the sentence was announced and less than 10 feet away from Mr. Perry to check messages and likely to send messages of their ‘victory’, and I felt ashamed to be a Canadian.
“More than that as a granddaughter of a diamond driller who spent his life underground I felt sad that some people in your industry put so much value on the almighty dollar that you would instruct your lawyers to humiliate a kind, gentle and sincere elderly man trying to protect the environment for all our children and grandchildren. I try to believe you [the mineral industry] really do want to find a way for all people to find a compromise, but you cannot do it when you seek to humiliate others.”