In a landmark court ruling for access to justice for Indigenous Nations, Justice Stephens of the BC Supreme Court has dismissed the application of the Nisga’a Nation to be added as a defendant in the Aboriginal title litigation brought by the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, currently set to proceed to trial on October 1, 2024.

The Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs are together claiming title to the 6,200 square kilometres of the Gitanyow Lax’yip, located in the Nass and Skeena Watersheds (Kitwanga and Kispiox Rivers). The Nisga’a Treaty, which came into force in 2000, was negotiated without the participation and over the objections of the Gitanyow. It includes a “Nass Wildlife Area”, in which the Nisga’a have non-exclusive hunting rights, that overlaps with 84% of the Gitanyow Lax’yip.

Justice Stephens noted the challenging history of Aboriginal title litigation in British Columbia, which have “ballooned” into long and complex trials, and stated that a new approach was required, taking into account “proportionality, access to justice and reconciliation”. Recognizing that the Gitanyow had carefully limited their claim to avoid asking Court to make any determinations about the Nisga’a Treaty, Justice Stephens concluded that:

… it is not necessary, just, or convenient for the Nisga’a to be added as a defendant to this action, and I decline to do so. In reaching this decision, I have not only placed weight, as I must, on the Gitanyow’s interest in access to justice, but also on the interest in resolving such claims in a timely manner.

Simogyet Malii/Glen Williams stated that the decision has opened up multiple paths for the Gitanyow to finally achieve justice:

“This decision clears the path for the timely resolution of our title claim to the lax’yip in court. But it also recognizes that the harm caused by the negotiation of the Nisga’a Treaty without our participation can be resolved through honourable negotiation between governments. The Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs stand ready to resolve that historic injustice.”

Joel Starlund/Sk’a’nism Tsa ‘Win’Giit, Executive Director of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs emphasized the importance of the decision for all Indigenous people:

“Justice Stephens’s decision sets a powerful precedent. For the current Chiefs, who are carrying on the work of their predecessors who continuously fought for recognition of Gitanyow rights, this is an important milestone in our journey towards recognition and self-determination. Other Indigenous Nations can also share in this victory given the importance the court has placed on access to justice, and the public interest in seeing Aboriginal rights claims determined on their merits in a timely manner.”

To learn more, please see: ‘Gitanyow & Nisga’a:Territorial Overlap’.