The federal government issued an official apology to the Williams Lake First Nation, located in central British Columbia, a year after a $135 million settlement was reached over the illegal settlement of their village lands.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree issued the apology, on behalf of the government, at a Sunday event outside the First Nation band office.
It came after an emotional speech, delivered primarily in the Secwépemc language, by First Nation elder Amy Sandy.
“This day comes from all the work our elders have done in the past,” he said. “I raise my hand to everyone who helped with this.”
First Nations councilor Chris Wycotte, who oversaw the entire legal process for 30 years, described how the illegal settlement deprived his people of their homes and their connection to their culture.
“We had nothing, not even an acre,” he said.
Anandasangaree said the federal government was committed to addressing the harms of colonization.
“The dispossession and forced separation of the Williams Lake lands has had a profound impact on you,” the minister said, addressing dozens of members of the nation present. “The Government of Canada accepts responsibility for this historic injustice and expresses its deepest regret and sincere apology.”
The apology came nearly 165 years after the agreement began in 1859. according to the First Nationon the land now known as the town of Williams Lake.
Then-Chief William, after whom the First Nation, the town and the nearby lake are named, gave permission to a settler to build a cabin within the village lands. The colonial government later set aside part of that land for an Indian reservation.
By 1861, however, most of the village’s land had been taken over by white settlers. That led many of the First Nations to move to nearby hills, with little land and no opportunities to farm.
“In 1879, Chief William wrote that our people were threatened with famine because ‘the land my people lived on for 500 years was taken by a white man,'” reads a nation fact sheet.
Prolonged legal challenge
In 1994, the First Nation launched a legal battle over the illegal settlement, following Wycotte’s discovery of some documents in Victorian provincial archives.
A total of 4,000 pages of evidence were available to the First Nation, including Chief William’s letters to the federal government outlining his nation’s plight.
The First Nation brought the claim through a process called the Indigenous Claims Commission and then the Specific Claims Tribunal. In 2014, the court ruled that Canada breached its obligations to the First Nation by allowing it to be illegally evicted from its traditional lands.
However, Canada appealed the decision as the legal dispute continued for another four years before the country’s highest court upheld the court’s ruling in 2018, sparking three years of negotiations to reach a damages settlement.
Last year, a settlement was reached for $135 million, close to the maximum $150 million that could have been awarded.
The terms of the agreement were ratified by the members of the nation. shortly after. Under the terms of the agreement, seniors are eligible for a one-time payment of $25,000, and each adult band member receives $1,500 per year.
The funds were also placed in a trust for under-18s in the nation, and the nation also plans to use the money from the settlement for programs, services and capital projects within the First Nation.