The B.C. government needs to step up and let businesses impacted by the Aboriginal declared title area west of Williams Lake know what their futures hold, said Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett.
Five-year bridging agreements expired May 31, which had allowed operators with tenures for tourism and ranching to continue their operations in the area.
Barnett admitted there is no question the Tsilhqot’in Nation and Xeni Gwet’in First Nation can do what they want with the 1,700 square kilometres of land for which the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 awarded a declaration of Aboriginal title.
She believes, however, negotiations between the province and the Tsilhqot’in are being held in private and operators have been shutout. She is calling for fair compensation and a seat at the table for ranchers, guide outfitters and tourism operators.
“People need to know what’s going on and where their future is,” she said. “Government has created this issue and therefore government should be at the table paying full compensation to people who did business on Crown lands that are now title lands.”
A meeting with land tenure holders, Cariboo Regional District and province was held on May 4, 2020, confirmed Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser.
Representatives from the B.C. Government and Xeni Gwet’in also held a working session on the long-term management of the title lands on May 29 that was followed with a technical session on June 11.
The next session will take place on June 29, 2020 said Fraser, who acknowledged the decision, which was the first declaration of Aboriginal title awarded in Canada, raises complex issues the government and Nations have not grappled with before.
“We recognize it continues to be a challenging transition for ranchers and tourism operators,” Fraser said. “We are all working together — the Province, federal government, Tŝilhqot’in National Government, Xeni Gwet’in and tenure holders — to achieve certainty for everyone affected by the decision. That includes finding solutions for affected tenure holders.”
Fraser said it is important tenure holders continue to engage with the Tsilhqot’in Nation and the Xeni Gwet’in, as the governing body for the declared title area.
In order to engage in angling activity and guided hunting in territory that overlaps Tsilhqot’in title lands, guide outfitters must obtain the permission of the Tsilhqot’in Nation and Xeni Gwet’in.
As for ranching operations, Fraser said the province is working with Xeni Gwet’in to understand their interests regarding the three range tenures that overlap the declared title area.
“In the interim, any rancher who seeks access to the title lands for the purpose of grazing should be communicating directly with the Tsilhqot’in Nation and the Xeni Gwet’in.”
The Xeni Gwet’in First Nation has to date purchased two properties — a ranch and a lodge. Fraser said while the province remains a neutral party in any purchase negotiations between the operators and the Tsilhqot’in, they have provided some funding to Xeni Gwet’in to support acquisition of properties at a fair market value.
Barnett said transparency and fair market value is all the operators are asking for.
“When you invest your life and your livelihood and you have a family to feed it’s the government’s responsibility because we all know reconciliation is happening and it’s going to continue to happen, but when people are displaced the government should be at the table to make sure that they have full compensation.”
Fraser said the province is not aware of any cases where landowner access to private lands has been blocked.
“The province’s perspective is that the public has the right to travel on provincial roads within title lands. This is part of our discussion with Xeni Gwet’in.”
Meanwhile ranchers impacted by the 2014 decision are growing more vocal and have joined a group demanding a seat at the negotiating table for area residents and business owners.
Canadians for Fairness and Transparency has been organizing communities from across the entire region in an effort to protect their communities, families and businesses, many of which have already suffered financial losses, said Chilcotin rancher and business owner Felix Schellenberg in a news release.
Chilcotin ranchers have had an agreement with the province for over a century that allows ranchers to graze livestock on Crown land. The province grants Crown land grazing rights in exchange for negotiated yearly grazing fees relative to numbers and kind of livestock grazed and grazing management performance. Every Chilcotin ranch was built on that agreement, Schellenberg said.
Schellenberg said residents were “shocked and appalled” when, after hundreds of letters of concern stemming back years around the issue were sent to Minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, they received a singular response letter stating:
“Canada will ensure that stakeholders and non-Tŝilhqot’in people are consulted at the appropriate points in the negotiation process.”
Schellenberg said the minister is holding their livelihoods, investments, families, relationships and the viability of their businesses, homes and communities hostage by refusing to engage with them.
“Ranching’s viability is based on Crown land grazing including millions of dollars in infrastructure on Crown land that is now in jeopardy.”
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua was unable to be reached for immediate comment.