Denial of aboriginal title and rights, as Michael Smith advocates in his recent letter to the editor, rests on foundation of racism and intolerance that leaves no room for reconciliation of un-extinguished indigenous land rights and the exercise of indigenous self-determination. Dubiously declaring oneself not a racist does not excuse a position that perpetuates inequality and injustice in our community.
As I teach my undergraduate students at UVic, this tired tirade is familiar from public debates of 25 years ago, inflamed by ideologues like Tom Flanagan, and taken up by Canadians who remain fundamentally ignorant of the ongoing legacies of our colonial history. Now widely recognized as morally reprehensible and based on a deeply flawed understanding of basic principles in Canadian common law, such arguments should be water long under the bridge. However the voices of trolls living under those bridges still pop up, as we have read here and in similarly abhorrent letters published by the Nanaimo Daily News last year.
What letters like these do, however, is raise the possibility of conversation about the recognition of aboriginal title and rights, hopefully offering a departure point for genuine dialogue between neighbours -— aboriginal and settler -— who are all here to stay. Smith himself says that the “first order of business is to affirm just what are the public lands and waterways.”
The Stz’uminus First Nation has unextinguished aboriginal title and rights throughout their territories. No historic treaty was ever signed here; therefore the substantial legal consequence of indigenous property, usufructuary and governance rights continues to be in full force and effect throughout the “public lands and waterways” in Stz’uminus territories today. This fact cannot be wished away however inconvenient some may find it.
Indeed, the Crown’s duty to consult and accommodate Stz’uminus First Nation on matters that impact their fishing rights was affirmed by the BC Court of Appeal back in the mid-1990s. While Stz’uminus has tried over the past 20 years to negotiate recognition and respect for these rights both in and out of the BC Treaty Process, substantive agreement has been elusive. The Crown’s legacy of denial continues to be felt in the current dispute over the impact of commercial and recreational fisheries on the exercise of Stz’uminus title and rights.
As neighbours and friends, we should stand with the Stz’uminus First Nation, insisting that governments engage respectfully and with honour. We should applaud Stz’uminus First Nation’s remarkable recent achievement in negotiating out of a full one-third of the oppressive Indian Act. We should congratulate Stz’uminus First Nation in the success they have had in envisioning and launching their new school facilities (and perhaps ask ourselves how it could be that SD68 served them so poorly that they needed to take their children away). We should continue working together to develop our mutual future economy and community. And most importantly, we should appreciate and acknowledge that the Ladysmith community has the honour and privilege to be located in the territory of Stz’uminus First Nation.
When the editors of the Nanaimo Daily News published not one, but two, letters with the same repugnant tone as Smith’s feature letter in the Chronicle and Take 5 they were met with protests, and formal complaints to the BC Press Council. Community leaders in Nanaimo immediately responded, taking concrete measures to educate and inform, and to foster genuine conversation to take the place of specious sentiments founded in unchallenged ignorance. I hope our Ladysmith community takes the opportunity to have such a meaningful dialogue.