The federal government issued an official apology to the Williams Lake First Nation, located in central B.C., a year after a $135 million settlement was reached over illegal settlement of its village lands.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree issued the apology, on behalf of the government, at a Sunday event outside the First Nation’s band office.
It came after an emotional speech — mostly delivered in the Secwépemc language — from First Nation Elder Amy Sandy.
“This day’s coming from all the work that our elders have done in the past,” she said. “I put my hands up to everyone who’s helped out with this.”
First Nation Councillor Chris Wycotte, who oversaw the entire legal process over 30 years, described how the illegal settlement deprived his people of homes and connection to their culture.
“We had nothing, not even one acre,” he said.
Anandasangaree said the federal government was committed to addressing the harms of colonization.
“The dispossession and forced separation of Williams Lake lands has had profound impacts on you,” the minister said, addressing dozens of nation members in attendance. “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 settlement began in 1859, according to the First Nation, in the land now known as the City of Williams Lake.
Then-chief William — for whom the First Nation, city and nearby lake are all named — gave permission to a settler to build a cabin within village lands. The colonial government subsequently set aside some of that land for an Indian reservation.
By 1861, however, most of the village lands had been taken by white settlers. That drove many of the First Nation members to nearby hills, with little land and no opportunity to cultivate crops.
“In 1879, Chief William wrote that our people were threatened by starvation because ‘the land on which my people lived for 500 years was taken by a white man,'” reads an information sheet from the nation.
Prolonged legal challenge
In 1994, the First Nation launched a legal battle over the illegal settlement — following Wycotte’s discovery of some documents in Victoria’s provincial archives.
A total of 4,000 pages of evidence was available to the First Nation, including Chief William’s letters to the federal government describing his nation’s plight.
The First Nation advanced the claim through a process called the Indian Claims Commission, and then the Specific Claims Tribunal. In 2014, the tribunal ruled Canada breached its obligations to the First Nation by allowing it to be unlawfully 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 affirmed the tribunal’s ruling in 2018, sparking three years of negotiations toward a settlement for damages.
Last year, a $135 million settlement was reached — close to the maximum of $150 million that could have been awarded.
The settlement’s terms were ratified by the nation’s members shortly after. Under the terms of the settlement, elders are eligible for a one-time payment of $25,000, with each adult member of the band getting $1,500 per year.
Funds were also placed into a trust for those under 18 in the nation, and the nation also plans to use the settlement money for programs, services and capital projects within the First Nation.