Delgamuukw v. British Columbia


Since the Constitution Act of Canada was enacted in 1982 a number of important cases have gone all the way to the Supreme Court on the issue of Indigenous land claims and rights. Some of those cases bear heavily on the issues that Wet’suwet’en First Nation faces today.

Interestingly, one of those cases was Delgamuukw v. British Columbia which also included the Wet’suwet’en and their neighbours the Gitxsan or Gitksan. I have already commented on the Gitksan people earlier in this blog. See

In fact as I mentioned in that earlier post it was seeing them at  the Gitksan village in BC many years ago that first got me interested in Indigenous issues. Today, the Gitksan are also supporting their neighbours the Wet’suwet’en. It really is a small world.

In the case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia the Supreme Court recognized traditional governance forms of First Nations including the hereditary chief and clan system on traditional territories. That has become an important issue in the current Wet’suwet’en melee because of the disagreement between 5 of the Chiefs and Councils who have signed Benefits Agreements with the CoastalGasLink and the Hereditary Chiefs who are opposed to their pipeline. The Hereditary Chiefs are arguing in this current case that the Elected Band Councils and their Chiefs are more like municipal councils with jurisdiction only over reserve lands. The Court noted this in the injunction case but did not say whether or not it agreed with this assertion. Whether that claim is right or not is one of the many uncertainties in the current case.

In Delgamuukw v. British Columbia the Supreme Court upset the law as it was until that time. The trial judge had rejected the claim by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan that they had an aboriginal right  over traditional  lands in northern B.C. that had never been ceded to the Crown because it could not provide satisfactory evidence to support their claims. The Supreme Court overturned that decision, pointing out that the court should have paid more attention to the oral tradition of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitksan people. In order to do that the Supreme Court acknowledged that the ordinary laws of evidence must be adapted to place oral history on an equal footing with other types of evidence, instead of being classed as hearsay as courts had previously done. This made a huge difference in cases of Indigenous rights because invariably they depended on oral history.

In the Delgamuukw case the court also said, in accordance with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, that aboriginal title to land can only be surrendered to the Crown. Added to that, such land is communally held, not privately as other land. This is also a controversial issue I will comment on later in this blog. To prove that it has Aboriginal title a First Nation must prove by oral history, or otherwise, that the land was exclusively occupied prior to sovereignty.

This case considered the nature of Aboriginal title.  Aboriginal title is a right in land that allows a group to use the land in almost any way deemed fit.  The use need not be an Aboriginal right per se(e.g. the right to hunt).  Title land can be used in many ways, but not in a way that is irreconcilable with the original connection with the land (e.g. cannot strip mine a land that was used as a hunting ground).  Aboriginal title can only be surrendered to the Crown.  In other words, only the federal government can extinguish aboriginal title, not provinces. in the current case the Wet’suwet’en assert that they were never conquered and never ceded their rights in the land to the Crown and that therefore they own it.

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