Chief White reflects on anniversary of Snuneymuxw Treaty

Friday was the 157th anniversary of the Snuneymuxw Treaty (also known as the Douglas Treaty).

Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III is sitting at his office desk on Centre Street Wednesday afternoon. He’s looking out a large round window that looks out over the Nanaimo Estuary, which sparkles in the late afternoon sun.

It’s partially covered in log booms, and further evidence of economic activity is evident.

“I used to go fishing out there with my grandfather when I was a kid,” lamented White, 42. “The estuary has historically been an important resource for Snuneymuxw people. It used to be productive for us when the water was clean, and it was home to all sorts of fish and wildlife that we used to sustain ourselves. The beaches down there used to be white sand, and now they’re black mud.”

The estuary is the eastern boundary of Snuneymuxw’s 16-hectare reserve, and serves as a reminder of the traditional way of life Nanaimo’s indigenous people used to enjoy.

It also serves as a reminder of what Snuneymuxw has lost.

“It belongs now to the federal government which leases it out to the port authority,” said White. “The port authority leases it to forest companies and other industry. It’s been taken away from us and everybody seems to be making money from it but us. We don’t see a penny.”

It’s that kind of loss that has driven White since he was elected as Snuneymuxw chief in December 2009 to strongly pursue validation of the Snuneymuxw Treaty (also known as the Douglas Treaty), which was signed by Snuneymuxw and James Douglas, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and representative of the Crown, on Dec. 23, 1854.

Friday was the 157th anniversary of the agreement.

The treaty is supposed to recognize the Snuneymuxw way of life, and protect Snuneymuxw village sites, enclosed fields and confirm the protection for Snuneymuxw fisheries and hunting.

It was also supposed to recognize Snuneymuxw’s traditional land, which includes mid-Vancouver Island, as well as the Gulf Islands and Fraser River.

In 1854, Douglas knew he had to work with the Snuneymuxw people in order to benefit from the vast coal seams and other resources found in what was to become Nanaimo, and while here, Douglas honoured the agreement.

Those in power who came after him, however, did not.

“It’s all part of the story of how the Crown shifted away from a policy of recognition and respect of Snuneymuxw title to our territory, which they did in 1854, to a number of years later, about 10 or so, when the government moved away from this policy of recognition and respect, nation to nation, to one of denial,” said White. “That was a mistake.”

The Snuneymuxw Treaty was the last treaty made by the government of James Douglas. It was also the last treaty made in British Columbia until the Nisga’a Treaty in 2000.

White, who worked as a lawyer strengthening First Nations rights before being elected chief, says the legality of the Snuneymuxw Treaty has been confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada, and he intends to pursue its legitimacy starting with cooperating with other local governments to increase it’s land base and provide a better future for his people.

To begin the public discussion and education about the treaty, Snuneymuxw First Nation has begun a process of education for all levels of government, third parties and stakeholders on the background, meaning and implications of the Snuneymuxw Treaty. Snuneymuxw and Vancouver Island University will co-host a large conference on the Pre-Confederation Treaties of Vancouver Island May 10-11, 2012.

Exercising rights extended to Snuneymuxw people through the treaty is one goal, while finding a way to utilize its traditional land base is another.

White points to the success of First Nations in Osoyoos, under Chief Clarence Louie, who have had the opportunity to innovate and generate relative prosperity for its members.

“Snuneymuxw is one of the biggest First Nations in the province in terms of population and one of the smallest in terms of land base,” said White. “I’ve been trying to understand the disparity that exists and I think of the great economic work that Osoyoos has been doing under Chief Clarence Louie and the foundations of their success, then I think of the limitations of Snuneymuxw. The one thing that really pops out is the disparity in land base.”

Louie’s Osoyoos Indian Band enjoys almost 13,000 hectares of land, bigger than the city of Nanaimo, and a population of 400 or 500 people. Snuneymuxw has 16 hectares of reserve and about 1,600 people.

“If we had that kind of land base, my people would be in a much different situation than we are now,” added White. “This anniversary always brings to mind, I always ask myself, how much progress has been made in the past year in terms of reaching more meaningful implementation of our treaty rights and recognition and respect of the treaty relationship that we’re in.

“Unfortunately, little has changed and that’s frustrating to me because it doesn’t make any sense. We all live in this treaty relationship together and we are taking steps to fulfill a vision that I don’t want to leave for the next generation.”