“If we lose, we’re not a culture, not a people…Losing is not an option for us.”
Chief Roger William uttered these prophetic words back in 2002, during filming of the documentary Wild Horses, Unconquered People about the Xeni Gwet’in’s now legendary legal challenge for title to Tsilhqot’in land. This past weekend I was privileged to be invited to the Tsilhqot’in celebration on what is now their undisputed land, following the June 26, 2014 SCC judgment.
Down the dusty road past the band office, Naghtanaqed School and the health office, to the Xeni Gwet’in rodeo grounds, I and my family joined the 200 or so gathered under a massive blue and white tent to cheer, shed tears and drum for this momentous occasion.
My husband, David Robbins, was particularly emotional – he was one of the key lawyers who dedicated more than 15 years to proving that this remote nation owned this pristine tract of interior BC. In fact, before reaching the celebration, we pulled over at the east end of Xeni Biny (Konni Lake), looking down the valley to the Chilcotin Range of the Coast Mountains, and he wept for joy. So did I.
Words fail when under the ever-watchful Ts’il?os – spiritual mountain forefather of the Xeni Gwet’in – we could sit and take in the immensity of the judgment that declared Tsilhqot’in ownership to almost 2000 square kilometres of land. But not just any land. Stunning mountain vistas, clean clear lakes, open side hills, inhabited by all manner of top line predators, ungulates, fish and bird, and off the grid.
Under the big tent, Chief Roger spoke eloquently, listing from his state of the art phone the long list of witnesses who made it through the 339 trial days, honouring those elders who are no longer living, and explaining how long each person spent on the stand and how they contributed. He himself was on the witness stand for 77 days – possibly a record in BC’s court history. Dressed from head to toe in deer-hide hand made by his 75-year old mother Eileen William, Roger also swallowed tears of thanks as he expressed his gratitude for the support of his family and the people of his nation, living and ancestral.
We listened as the other five Tsilhqot’in Chiefs including Tribal Chair Joe Alphonse took turns speaking about the pride of this moment and the future. Other leaders like UBCIC’s Grand Chief Stuart Phillip, First Nation Summit Grand Chief Ed John and AFN’s Jody Wilson-Raybould gave words of thanks. Five hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan – in traditional robes – spoke, drummed, sang and offered gifts. There was laughter too, as one of the Gitxsan chiefs joked that they would happily play the Tsilhqot’in a game of lahal for the declared title lands.
Representatives of the legal team, many of whom cut their teeth on this mammoth case, came to quietly watch and take in the energy. Jack Woodward, whose vision and tenacity match those of Chief Roger, spoke enthusiastically and briefly. As the law firm that saw this case through the better part of two decades, this will be Woodward and Company’s magnum opus – to date.
Filled with traditional Tsilhqot’in hospitality – a feast of salmon, bannock, salads and stew – I enjoyed walking through the throng, hugging so many familiar faces. During the filming of Wild Horses, I spent many weeks in Xeni, or the Nemiah Valley, with my colleague Lionel Goddard learning the land, the stories and the history; listening to elders and young alike tell me why they were all in when it came to supporting the court action. Back then I became convinced that this day would eventually come, because the conviction of everyone I met ran as deep as their roots in the valley. Now it was real – and this celebration a vindication, a sweet and beautiful uttering of what our Constitution holds as true. Aboriginal title. No longer an ethereal concept. A step towards a deeper reconciliation and a reckoning of past injustices.
Susan Smitten, RAVEN ED and filmmaker