On September 10, 2023, Canada’s Minister Crown-Indigenous Relations, the honourable Gary Anandasangaree, apologized on behalf of Canada to Williams Lake First Nation for Canada’s failure to protect WLFN’s historic village site in what is now the City of Williams Lake, and for the unlawful dispossession and forced separation of WLFN from this important village.
Recently, WLFN and Canada reached a final settlement for this Village claim. The Nation has fought this injustice for over 150 years. For the last 30 years, WLFN has used Canada’s Specific Claim process and the courts to find a resolution. The claim centered on the colonial government’s failure to follow through on an 1861 order to set aside one of WLFN’s primary winter villages as an Indian Reserve. During the colonial period, many settlers came and drove community members away from the village. Their unlawful eviction caused incredible suffering for the community who had to take refuge in the surrounding mountains. In 1879, Chief William wrote to the British Colonist in Victoria that his people were threatened by starvation because their land had been stolen. When BC joined Confederation in 1871, Canada assumed responsibility to protect the important village lands for WLFN. While creating and affirming Indian reserves in the province, Canada failed to protect and reserve this village for the Nation because doing so would interfere with the interests of settlers.
Sunday’s event opened with a prayer by Elder Amy Sandy, followed by drumming and singing. Chief Willie Sellars then introduced long-time councillor Chris Wycotte who has worked on the claim for the past thirty years. Wycotte’s research at the provincial archives initiated this claim. He described the long road to justice. “It wasn’t an easy journey,” Wycotte stated. “Canada made it as hard as they could to make sure that we failed.” Canada rejected the claim twice. Then WLFN took it to the Indian Claims Commission (ICC). The ICC ruled in WLFN’s favour, but Canada appealed the decision. WLFN then took a chance on the new Specific Claim’s Tribunal (SCT). “I think that was one of the best decisions we ever made,” said Wycotte. “Because that claim went through that Tribunal on its own merits – not based on somebody else’s decision.” While the SCT ruled in WLFN’s favour, Canada again appealed the decision. WLFN took it to the Supreme Court of Canada which ultimately ruled for the Nation. Wycotte noted the significance of WLFN’s victory: “Pre-confederation claims can go through the courts now. So, we kicked the door down on that one.”
Chief Willie Sellars confirmed that the reaching of the settlement agreement was an example on “how reconciliation is not just a buzz word,” and that reaching this settlement is good for WLFN, good for Canada and good for all Canadians. WLFN has created a Community Trust that will ensure this settlement will benefit current and future generations.
Chris Wycotte speaks to the crowd as Chief Willie Sellars and Minister Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree watch.
Photo credit: Brenda Gaertner
Chief Sellars also said it is a time to “kick the door down on the healing part.” He acknowledged all the former Chiefs in the crowd and all the Elders, many who have passed on, who diligently offered their knowledge to make this claim successful. Their legacy will live on for future generations in the Community Trust.
The honourable Gary Anandasangaree thanked the community for its kind welcome before describing the “long painful journey” WLFN took to gain justice. “Since time immemorial, the Secwépemc people of Williams Lake have used and depended on these lands and territory,” Anandasangaree acknowledged. “For decades, the community has worked tirelessly to have this terrible wrong corrected.” Anandasangaree stated that the Government of Canada “accepts responsibility for this historic injustice and expresses its deepest regret and sincere apology to the people of Williams Lake First Nation for the harms suffered by being unlawfully and wrongfully dispossessed and separated from the village lands.”
The day ended with a pow wow which included an acknowledgment and celebration of this historic apology.
Mandell Pinder LLP is honoured to have assisted WLFN over the past thirty years to achieve justice for this historical wrong.
See CIRNAC’s apology to WLFN here.