Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations celebrate anniversary of Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case

Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa Supreme Court of Canada case with multiple events in their communities in Northern B.C this past weekend.

While speaking at an event in Witset, Chief Satsan, Herb George of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs praised the courage of elders and chiefs coming together for a significant victory for  Aboriginal title in 1997.

“Who had the courage and discipline to bring this action forward, as they put it, our children and all future generations,” he said.

Multiple speakers shared first-hand accounts of the hostility their leaders faced both inside and outside the courtroom when they started the case against the B.C. government in 1984.

Am’sa’say’itxw, Vikki Russell, a matriarch from Gitanyow, remembers an incident when the hereditary chiefs wore their regalia at the Smither’s courthouse.

“While they were outside, a truckload of fellows drove by hollering at the hereditary chiefs who were in their regalia, mocking them, ” she said.

She added that this was when logging was happening in the area in both nations.

“Of course, they were protecting their interests and showing disrespect to our people,” she said.

Satsan stated colonization and oppressive acts like residential schools and the potlach ban set leaders in motion to file the lawsuit.

“Made it illegal to practice our own governance, our own ceremony, to be on our own land and our chiefs and our people longed to take back their place to fulfil their responsibilities and obligation,” he said.

The Case:

 The case is named after Delgamuukw (Earl Muldoe) who was a claimant for the Gitxsan, and sued on behalf of his House and the nation. Gisday’wa (Alfred Joseph) was a prominent Wet’suwet’en claimant.

It challenged the B.C. supreme court’s ruling that oral history couldn’t be considered as evidence on a case involving Aboriginal land rights.

The supreme court ruled that the B.C. court erred and that oral arguments and Aboriginal title existed.

Peter Grant was one of the lead lawyers for Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en in the Delgamuukw case.

He first got involved with Indigenous law when he worked for Leonard Peltier on his defence team on a 1975 extradition case.

Grant said the nation’s hereditary chiefs set out to have the court tell the government B.C. and Canada what they already knew, that they had title to their lands through their clan governance and oral histories.

“Gisday’wa and Delgamuukw spoke before any lawyer said a word, that’s really important because that was the control of the case. In no other Indigenous case had ever started that way before, no other Indigenous case controlled by the people,” he said.

B.C.’s defence in the court case was that the laws of the colonial government extinguished Aboriginal land rights in B.C. when it became part of Canada in 1871.

Grant said the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations were battling people who believed that Indigenous people had no land rights.

“That was the attitude that your predecessors had to deal with up until the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case,” he shared.

In the Gitanmaax Hall, the walls have murals with pictures and quotes from the leaders involved in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case; they are remembered for their contributions.

Speakers at the community event shared how the nations presented their evidence in Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan languages sharing their oral histories.

According to Yagalahl, Dora Wilson, a matriarch from the Gitxsan translators and volunteers, worked tirelessly to produce documents.

“A package for each of the lawyers, a bunch for feds, the province, our own lawyers, the judge, so there was quite a paper we were dealing with. Sometimes it was 3:00 clock in the morning, we would be trying to staple it together you know,” she said.

Chief Hagwilnegh, Ron Mitchell from the Wet’suwet’en Herediatery Chiefs was a translator in the court case; he remembers the passions their elders spoke with in Delgamuukw.

“I can still hear them, how passionate they were, and all of them pretty well said, I am not doing this for me, I am doing it for my children, my grandchildren, my unborn great-grandchildren,” he stated.

Read More: 

The Delgamuukw decision: Putting the Wet’suwet’en conflict in perspective 

The Delgamuukw decision: When the ‘invisible people’ won recognition 

According to the B.C. Treaty Commission, the 1997 Supreme Court is a historic decision that says Aboriginal title exists and it’s a right to the land in British Columbia. But the court could not determine whether the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en had title to the land they claimed without a new trail.

The Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Antonio Lamer Puisne encouraged the parties to negotiate rather than to litigate at the end of his judgment.

A new trial has not taken place, and conflict over resources in these nations is ongoing.

Chief Neekt, George Muldoe of the Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, is in line to inherit the name Delgamuukw.

He stated that reconciliation is not happening if the government takes resources without their consent.

“It takes two to reconcile, and that’s not happening; they are taking millions and millions of dollars away from us as we speak. They are still selling all our lands privately to foreigners on and on and on,” he stated.

At both events in Witset and Gitanmaax, Neekt shared that he believed the best option was to go to court, but the decision would need to be made together.

“I think the only solution is probably to go back to court, I don’t think we have any choice, but it’s not up to me; it is up to chiefs collectively,” he said.

Chief Hanamuxw, Don Ryan of Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs shared that since Delgamuwkw, he has been working with Secwepemc people for over a decade.

He encouraged both everything that they would need to work together to battle climate change and finish the work the Delgamuukw case started.

“That the work that we started is not finished, that’s the message from me today; you have to finish; you have to keep working on this type of information because it tells us of where we came from, what we are doing today and where we’re going,  “ he said.

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