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Vancouver Island First Nation seeks compensation for historical construction of highway

Nation claims Canada failed to protect its rights over highway between Port Alberni and Tofino
A group of people in orange shirts gathers on Pacific Rim Highway on the Tseshaht First Nation reserve. (PHOTO COURTESY TSESHAHT FIRST NATION)

Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni is seeking compensation for a highway it says was built on Tseshaht territory without consent.

Tseshaht First Nation says it submitted a specific claim with the government of Canada, seeking compensation for the “unlawful and unauthorized” use of land within the nation’s reserve to build the provincial Pacific Rim Highway (Highway 4), which leads to Tofino. The highway runs parallel to the Somass River and crosses it via Riverbend Bridge, adjacent to the Tseshaht Administration Building.

“Tseshaht has always opposed the construction or operation of Highway 4 and has never been compensated for the use of its land,” says a press release from the nation.

A specific claim aims to right past wrongs by the Government of Canada against Indigenous Nations. This specific claim filed by Tseshaht provides Canada with an opportunity to accept responsibility for its wrongs and ensure Tseshaht is appropriately compensated for the loss of its reserve lands for an increasingly popular highway. The Tseshaht claim had not been listed publicly on the Specific Claims Tribunal website as of Oct. 27.

“This is not a new issue,” said Tseshaht First Nation elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh Ken Watts. “In 1889, our nation wrote a letter to the government of Canada expressing opposition to the roadway. Despite this, Canada did not take any steps to protect our interests, as they were legally required to do. As a result, the province of British Columbia proceeded to build the highway, taking our land without our consent.”

As Pacific Rim Highway is the only public route from Port Alberni to Tofino, roughly one million visitors travel the highway annually. Tseshaht First Nation has “consistently” expressed concerns about the impacts of the highway, including increased pollution, garbage waste, transportation and vehicle accidents that disproportionately impact Tseshaht members.

In accordance with the specific claims policy, Canada now has three years to review the claim and decide whether it will accept it for negotiations or not.

“We encourage Canada to expedite its review and acceptance of this claim so that we can get on with the work of righting this historic wrong,” said Watts. “Meanwhile, our nation is open to a separate conversation with the province of B.C. about its role in the future of this roadway on Tseshaht land to better protect our people now and in the future and keep them safe from the damage it continues to cause.”