top of page

The ancient trees at the heart of a case against the Crown

A small indigenous community is fighting a historic land rights claim in Canada - and they are using ancient trees and famed British explorer Captain Cook's journal to help make their case.

[Lichen Troy Moth | Nuchatlaht]

Wearing her red cedar hat and with a microphone in hand, Mellissa Jack stood in front of the British Columbia Supreme Court on a warm autumn day with a message.

"We have proven who we are, where we come from, and we are not going anywhere," she called out, to cheers from a gathered crowd.

In September 2022 Ms Jack and about 100 others had travelled from all over the province of British Columbia (BC) to be together outside the court as hearings in a closely-watched land rights case being fought by their indigenous community - Nuchatlaht First Nation - were drawing to a close.

The Nuchatlaht case not only has significance for Ms Jack and her people, but is being watched for its potential impact on indigenous land claims in Canada and what it means for the provincial government's commitment to reconciliation.

As one expert put it, the decision could be "the first tile in the Aboriginal rights game of dominos".

And to help win their case, the Nuchatlaht are using a unique piece of evidence that they say is not only a part of their cultural heritage, but also an important living artefact that must be cared for to restore a damaged land.


The Nuchatlaht filed the lawsuit against the province in 2017, claiming rights and titles of approximately 200 sq km [20,000 hectares] of land in the northern part of Nootka Island on the western edge of Vancouver Island.

The Nuchatlaht say they are the rightful stewards of the land, that it has been theirs for thousands of years and they have never surrendered it.

The Crown, which now owns the land, has denied the Nuchatlaht claim, and has argued that the Nuchatlaht have no continuous connection to the territory.

A lawyer for the Nuchatlaht has argued that the community was forced from their land by - among other causes - the creation of the reserve system in Canada, land set aside by the federal government for the exclusive use of First Nations.

"Canada put us aside on a little chunk of land with no value and no resources. That's why we are fighting in court right now, fighting for what little is left," Jordan Michael, Chief of the Nuchatlaht, told the BBC.

To win, one of the things the Nuchatlaht must prove is that they continuously and exclusively occupied the land in 1846, when Britain gained sovereignty over what is now BC in a treaty signed with the United States.

Members of the First Nation - there are about 160 of them - are confident they will prevail.

"We are small, but we are mighty," said Archie Little, Nuchatlaht House Speaker.

The province would not comment on the case, though it has previously said it respects the right of indigenous peoples to choose how they settle legal issues, including through the courts.

If they win rights to the land, "we would manage it, enhance it, protect it," said Mr Little.

"We need to help heal the earth. We will plant the proper trees and start the healing process. It's a big chore but we're up to it. We want to show that we can own and manage better," he added.

A verdict is expected in the coming weeks.


(c) 2023, BBC News


Featured Review
Tag Cloud
bottom of page