The Canadian legal system calls for proof of Aboriginal Title. What does that actually mean? A better question might be to ask how the legal situation got to this point where indigenous peoples have to prove title. In an ideal society, where fair is fair and right is right, would it not be the immigrant populations that ought to be proving their legal title to the riches of the new found lands?
At any rate, the Canadian legal context, being what it is, has indeed recognized the continued existence of Aboriginal title in most of BC, however it has called upon indigenous peoples to provide proof of that title. A significant point about Aboriginal title here in BC is that it has always existed; it has not and cannot be extinguished by the Provincial government.
From the Aboriginal perspective, of course, proof of title exists in the fact that we have always been here and we continue to live in our respective territories. The title to Aboriginal territories belongs to the collective – to the nation of Aboriginal people that originate from that territory.
It is deliberately misleading to all concerned when governments, both provincial and federal, talk about “Indian bands” as being independent first nations. For indigenous peoples to act upon the imposed designations as independent “Indian bands” is to be misled by those very governments. For example, seventeen communities signed the 1911 Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe, denoting the communities that make up the St’át’imc People, the indigenous nation in St’át’imc territory.
In international terms, nation refers to a people as a collective, having a distinct language, a definite area of land and a distinct culture or way of life. The indigenous peoples that continue to exist in BC meet these international criteria. This concept of being a collective society with a land, language and way of life provides critical proof for Aboriginal title.
Although there is great diversity amongst indigenous peoples, one thing held in common is the harvesting of fish, wildlife and plant materials as the historical basis of economic life. To document the required Aboriginal title evidence means interviewing people about land use and occupancy in the territory and mapping these activities.
When all of the mapped material is overlaid upon one another, a pattern of the indigenous use of the land is clearly shown. The patterns show a system to the use of the land and resources based upon a seasonal round. While showing the inter-relatedness of the people with the land, the stories gathered during the interviews also describe the laws that guide indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land, the animals and essentially all aspects of life.
The Supreme Court of Canada states that components of Aboriginal title evidence must be based upon proof of occupation, continuity and degree of connection with land and use of land. The interviewing and mapping documentation underlying the St’at’imc Land Use Plan show how St’át’imc people continue to exercise those very aspects of Aboriginal title today.