Honouring treaty is vital for Snuneymuxw, argues chief
With one of the largest band populations in the province and a main reserve of 40 acres, the Snuneymuxw First Nation doesn't treat the land claims question as just an academic debate.
At a far-reaching discussion with the Daily News on Monday that touched on a number of topics related to the First Nation's past and future, Chief Douglas White pointed to the fact that some Snuneymuxw families are now building three houses on lots meant for one and that two-thirds of band members now live off-reserve.
"You think about it, what does every society require in terms of land, of territory? To provide for themselves . . . well we don't even have the most basic, which is somewhere to live," said White, comparing his band to the Osoyoos Indian Band's 32,000 acres and 450 members. "We've got 1,700 members and we've got like a couple hundred acres of reserve land that's useful. That's an astonishing thing. And everyone wonders, 'What's the foundations of poverty of Indians in Canada?' Well, good God."
White is on a mission to educate the public and government alike as to the existence and application of the 1854 treaty James Douglas signed with his people on behalf of the colonial government. The treaty recognized the aboriginals' title to their village sites and enclosed fields, and confirmed protection for their fisheries and hunting, said White, but later colonial and Canadian governments "conveniently ignored or dismissed" what promises were made.
He sees the recognition of the treaty for the Snuneymuxw as one of his greatest successes so far in his tenure as chief. In particular, the environmental protection provisions and band economic development opportunities associated with the Nanaimo cruise ship terminal project stemmed from the First Nation's strong approach with the Douglas treaty, said White, a practising lawyer elected as chief in 2009.
But he's also quick to point out how far the Snuneymuxw have yet to go in achieving widespread recognition of the treaty, which will be 157 years old on Friday.
"It's just an amazing thing for me to have to sit here - in 2009, 2010, 2011 - and still be trying to explain to the Crown that we're in a treaty relationship," he said. To that end, the Snuneymuxw First Nation and Vancouver Island University are co-hosting a conference in May on the subject of pre-Confederation treaties on Vancouver Island signed between 1850 and 1854.
It's all part of the band's comprehensive approach to the full implementation of their treaty, White said.
The First Nation's relationships with local government are a work in progress. When asked about his interest in having Snuneymuxw representation on the Regional District of Nanaimo board of directors - an idea floated by RDN chairman Joe Stanhope - White said the matter is complicated by the band's "proper constitutional relationship" with government. Since he said the 1854 treaty amounts to a jurisdictional ouster of the province, it would be difficult to set up such an arrangement with a regional district whose existence and mandate is owed to Victoria.
"We're a different order of government," said White, adding that fact doesn't prevent the band from having a good relationship with the RDN.
White also said the working relationship the Snuneymuxw have with the city of Nanaimo is "remarkably strong" given their past, and that it has made huge strides in the last decade.