Asserting Our Rights – Oppenheimer tent city challenges the limits of government talk on First Nations legal rights

On July 10 organizers of the tent city at Oppenheimer Park put the City of Vancouver’s empty words to the test. Native leaders of the camp have asserted their Aboriginal rights to the land. They declared their rights to stay in the park because the land belongs to the Coast Salish Nations, not to the City.

City of Vancouver’s acknowledgment of unceded territory

Indigenous marcher carries sovereignty sign in VANDU's July 2014 City Wide housing march (pic. from Mainlander)
Indigenous marcher carries sovereignty sign in VANDU’s July 2014 City Wide housing march (pic. from Mainlander)

In June the City of Vancouver issued an official statement saying that it is built on land that belongs to the Coast Salish Nations. City Council admitted that the land was never given or sold to the City to settle. Does this mean that the City or the police will treat Native people and the Coast Salish Nations with any more respect or dignity?

The acknowledgement does not mean that City Hall will build an Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre. It does not mean that they will build low-income housing for the homeless, many who are Native. It does not mean City Hall will end police brutality and harassment against Indigenous people on the street or fund programs and services for Indigenous women and families to end child apprehensions. Vancouver’s acknowledgement does not return stolen land to Coast Salish nations.

Today is August 14th, and the city has no decent low-income housing to offer all of the tent city residents. If the city took its statement of unceded territory to heart, it would realize that the first people to be made homeless were Coast Salish peoples. It would provide housing for everyone who is homeless. So far, the City’s words are just lip service.

The Tsilhqot’in decision

Campers have talked of a recent Canada Supreme Court case called the Tsilhqot’in decision. This decision ruled that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation near Nemaiah Valley, B.C. has the right to their land. This right is called “Aboriginal title.” This is the first decision made by the Canadian Courts in almost 20 years that recognizes Aboriginal rights to land.

The Tsilhqot’in decision has some good in it. It is important for all First Nations in British Columbia. It says that First Nations have the right to say “No” to mining and logging projects and to not give consent if the Canadian government tries to take their land. It makes it easier for other First Nations to argue for their rights to land.

But the Tsilhqot’in decision has real limitations. First, the Tsilhqot’in First Nation was granted Aboriginal title to only 5% of their territory. The rest of their land is still considered to belong to Canada.

But even worse, that 5% of land can be stolen back if Canada decides it needs to use the land for forestry or mining. Canada’s right to take back what belongs to the Tsilhqot’in is called “infringement.” Infringement is a big part of the Tsilhqot’in decision and it is a big loophole.

In the end, the government of Canada could override a First Nation decision to refuse consent. The Tsilhqot’in decision leaves big loopholes in Aboriginal rights to land under Canadian law.

Tent cities are more powerful than empty words

The tent city is not asking for permission to be in Oppenheimer Park. Nor is it waiting for the courts to recognize their rights. Homeless people and Native people are stronger when we stand up together and assert our rights. When we act together, we will always be more powerful than the empty words of the government.

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