The vote to ratify a settlement agreement with Canada over the 79-Acre Claim could be a pivotal point in the modern history of Snuneymuxw First Nation.
The nation voted overwhelmingly to accept more than $49 million from the federal government to redress, in part, the loss of 32 hectares of land on Stewart Avenue unlawfully taken from the Snuneymuxw in the 1880s.
It’s the largest specific claim settlement in B.C. history.
The money will help secure resources and long-term benefits for the community, but with the agreement comes a second critical component, a promise from Canada to receive a Snuneymuxw request for 32 ha to replace reserve land lost nearly 140 years ago. The Snuneymuxw have 266 ha of land split up into four small reserves; the smallest per capita land base – there are about 1,700 Snuneymuxw – of all First Nations in the province.
Little crown land is available in the Nanaimo region for land claim transfers, but former Nanaimo Military Camp acreage has been held by the federal government for treaty settlements. That land, said Doug White III, acting Snuneymuxw chief, is not directly connected to the 79-Acre Claim settlement agreement, but ratification has triggered discussion about negotiation of its transfer to the Snuneymuxw.
“For our nation, two-thirds of the people live off the reserve now because there’s no place to live on the reserve … The way I’ve been talking about this claims settlement is that it becomes, for us, about being able to bring people home,” White said. “The people can come home now because that’s what the real work is. Yes, there are some immediate benefits in terms of the money element of it, but really, the big picture for the nation, this is about creating opportunities for our nation to be whole again in a real way.”
White said he hoped a land transfer agreement can be reached within another year and that Snuneymuxw economic health will have long-term benefits for everyone in the Nanaimo region.
“Obviously, first and foremost, this is about benefitting Snuneymuxw, but certainly, as a side effect, has the potential to be a major benefit to the region as a whole, bringing these lands back into the economy, so to speak,” White said.
When the settlement money is paid, which could be eight to 12 months from now, it will be put into a trust overseen by five Snuneymuxw community trustees and TD Canada Trust, the administrative trustee.
“This allows us to elevate to the next level, with economic development, with addressing our community priorities, addressing our advocacy and land acquisition, so people can come home finally,” said Erralyn Thomas, Snuneymuxw councillor and assistant negotiator.
Thomas said a portion of the settlement payment will be distributed to the nation’s members and the balance of the money will be managed through the trust according to the trust agreement, a 50-page document that specifies long term goals and priorities for application of the revenue and details how those goals and priorities will be achieved through economic development, strengthening of families and culture, educational opportunities and employment.
“We’re proud of that because we engaged the community on what the priorities and the goals of the trust should be, so their voices are in there,” Thomas said.
Primary goals established in the trust agreement include community priorities, title and rights advocacy, economic development and land acquisition.
“It has a huge effect,” Thomas said. “Our per capita household income, on the majority basis, is underneath the poverty line, so we want to change that. We want to make sure they can make enough money so they can put food on their table and they can all stand up on their own and they can look at the world and say, ‘I can do that.’”