Fighting for a place under the sun

Additional image:: 

THE NISGA: are a proud people who live in the Naas river valley of northwestern British Columbia in Canada. Today, they are still attached to their land. Joseph Gosnell, a NISGA:, who was in Rio, puts it this way, "Ours is a land like no other. Rich in salmon, steelhead, oolichan, shellfish, waterfowl, grizzly bear, mountain goat, wolf and moose. NISGA: territory is a place of pristine beauty, unpolluted air, wild and raging rivers, ancient forests of giant cedar and hemlock, and dramatic landscapes of volcanic lava and glacial ice."

In the late 1800s, a shadow fell over their land. Miners, commercial fisherfolk and loggers invaded their territory. The lower Nass watershed was the first to be sacrificed to the chainsaw. Mineral exploitation began at the turn of the century. Billions of dollars worth of minerals were extracted, but not a cent accrued to the NISGA:. In 1858, the colony of British Columbia was established and, lured by the gold rush, Europeans arrived by the boatload. They brought with them smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis and measles which ravaged the native population. The population decreased to half between 1835 and 1906.

Under British colonial law, the land had to be negotiated and purchased from native peoples. But here, the British Columbian government simply cut out small reserves for natives. While their 24,862 sq km territory has been exploited by outsiders, Indians themselves have been relegated to a 76 sq km area, some 0.008 per cent of their traditional territory.

From the beginning of the century, the NISGA: have been trying to get the Canadian government to redress the land issue. They have been continuously fighting to have their rights recognised.

After a series of court battles, the case went up to the Supreme Court of Canada. Its 1973 ruling opened the door for negotiations with the government. But since then there have been numerous delays. It was only in December last, after the British Columbia elections, that the Indians were able to gain access to the provincial legislature. And now there is hope for a fair settlement.

Frank Calder, a NISGA: who was involved in a long legal battle with the government of British Columbia, says, "They hope to exterminate us, but our will to survive will see us through, as it has so far." Calder was the first native to be elected to a legislature in the British Commonwealth in 1949.

Says an emphatic Calder, "What we are telling Canada is to recognise us as equals, that we are the original people of this land. Our language, our culture, our title to our land must be explicitly entrenched in the Constitution. Canada's Constitution cannot be complete until this has taken place."