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B.C. First Nation has proposed $135M settlement after 160-year battle with Canada

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia First Nation has reached a proposed $135-million settlement with the federal government, 160 years after settlers began taking over its village lands.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, listens to Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars as they arrive for a welcoming ceremony and to meet residential school survivors, in Williams Lake, B.C., on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. A British Columbia First Nation has reached a proposed $135-million settlement with the federal government, 160 years after settlers began taking over its village lands.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia First Nation has reached a proposed $135-million settlement with the federal government, 160 years after settlers began taking over its village lands.

Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation said a legal battle that began nearly three decades ago ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2018 before mediation began last year.

"Words cannot really express the amount of joy and happiness that is beaming through our council and our community," Sellars said Monday after announcing the agreement-in-principle, which still must be ratified.

Village lands within what is now the city of Williams Lake were occupied by settlers contrary to the colonial government's commitment to create a reserve, so many of their ancestors were displaced, Sellars said.

Members aged 18 and over will have a chance to ratify the settlement in a referendum on June 29, and Sellars said three in-person and online information sessions will be held before that — on May 12, 26 and June 9.

The First Nation said about 450 people will be eligible to vote, about half of its registered members, and ballots can be cast by mail or in person.

The $135-million deal is close to the maximum $150 million that could have been awarded, and Sellars urged all members of the First Nation to support it for the sake of future generations and the legacy of those who lost their lands.

"One of the discouraging things about how long this battle has lasted is that a lot of the elders that have testified throughout this whole process have passed on. They're never going to see any benefit from this victory, and that was something that we kept in mind as we were negotiating."

Each member of the community will get a settlement, and those aged 60 and up will be eligible for higher amounts, he said.

Sellars said most of the money would go into a professionally managed community trust, with the interest providing annual payments to members, while the rest would fund programs to bring back cultural ceremony and infrastructure, including housing, a community centre and a wastewater treatment facility.

"These are just some of the things that we need to do in the years to come, and every single one of those has multimillion-dollar price tags attached to it. It's something to think about as we move down this discussion of reconciliation and what it's going to mean for the health of our community."

Chris Wycotte, who has been a councillor with the First Nation for 19 years, said the legal fight began after he unearthed some documents in the provincial archives in Victoria in 1993.

Wycotte was then a researcher as part of the First Nation's ongoing treaty negotiations. He said he found evidence suggesting Williams Lake was once a village site that had been illegally occupied by settlers.

Some of the documents included letters to the federal government from Chief William, for whom Williams Lake is named, Wycotte said.

"I said to my council at that time that I think we have a case here for wrongful loss of land, and they agreed. So we called our legal counsel."

In one letter from 1859, an Oblate priest writing on William's behalf said "people were starving and didn't have one acre," Wycotte said, adding a total of 4,000 pages of evidence was available to the First Nation.

"It was pretty clear, and it was well documented, and that's what gave us our strong case."

The First Nation's pursuit of justice began in 1994 when it submitted a claim with Canada's Specific Claims Policy, but the federal government refused to accept it.

The First Nation then advanced the claim through a process called the Indian Claims Commission, and then the Specific Claims Tribunal. In 2014, the tribunal ruled Canada breached its obligations to the First Nation by allowing it to be unlawfully evicted from its traditional lands. 

However, Canada appealed the decision as the legal dispute continued for another four years before the country's highest court affirmed the tribunal's ruling in 2018, sparking three years of negotiations toward a settlement for damages.

Wycotte said he never imagined when he read letters from Chief William about the plight of his people that he'd see the day the federal government would offer a $135-million settlement.

"It's been a hard journey," he said. "When the Supreme Court of Canada made its decision, I knew it was a done deal. Canada can deny all it wants, but it has nowhere else to go."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2022.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press