25th Anniversary of Historic Delgamuukw Decision


This week, the BC Treaty Commission highlights the upcoming 25th anniversary of the historic Delgamuukw v. British Columbia Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decision.

In 1984, the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan (Gitksan) and Wet’suwet’en Nations filed a land title action to claim 58,000 hectares of land. Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Simo’ogyet Delgamuukw (Earl Muldoe) and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Dini ze’ Gisday’ wa (Alfred Joseph) were claimants who filed on behalf of their Nations and Houses. There are many other claimants named in the land title action, which you can view here.

The historic case had multiple provincial and federal components, and ultimately culminated in a groundbreaking SCC ruling on December 11, 1997. The ruling contained the first legal definition of Aboriginal rights and title in Canada and determined that rights and title were not extinguished when British Columbia joined confederation.

The SCC observed that Aboriginal title constituted an ancestral right protected by section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The court also observed that British Columbia had no authority to extinguish aboriginal rights either under the Constitution Act, 1867 or by virtue of s.88 of the Indian Act, 1985. The rulings transformed the understanding of Indigenous rights and title in Canada.

The Delgamuukw decision is significant because it fundamentally transformed the understanding of Aboriginal rights and title (i.e. ownership of traditional territory) in Canada.

The case clarified the integral role of oral testimony as evidence, and the content and definition of Aboriginal title. It affirmed the Indigenous right as an exclusive right to land and not just the right to hunt, fish or gather, and that Indigenous title was not extinguished by Confederation. Delgamuukw also made clear the Crown’s duty to consult and accommodate when Aboriginal title is infringed.

Since the Delgamuukw decision, there has been progress in modern treaty negotiations, and Indigenous self-governance and sovereignty. In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of Delgamuukw on December 11, we invite Canadians to learn more and advance reconciliation.

To learn more about the impact of the historic case, please refer to the Delgamuukw Guide published by the BC Treaty Commission.

The path to getting here has not been simple, and we recognize the tireless work and dedication of those involved in the case, the ones who came before them, the ones who are no longer with us — we raise our hands in respect to those that continue the journey of building the new relationship with the Governments of British Columbia and Canada as we move forward on the shared path of reconciliation. Today, modern treaty negotiations and agreements continue to protect and promote   Indigenous rights and title.

Modern treaties establish a new Nation-to-Nation, government-to-government relationship based on respect, cooperation, and reconciliation. Treaties honour the right to self-determination and self-government and constitutionally protect Indigenous rights and title, and the sharing of sovereignty.