Common Sense Canadian

BC First Nation takes “Great Land Grab” to international court

PostedFebruary 17, 2014 by in International

An interview with Robert Morales, Chief Negotiator for the Hul’qumi’num First Nations Treaty Group, about the E&N Railway Land Grants of 1887 and the lasting repercussions of this massive “land grab” for the Hul’qumi’num people today.

Robert Morales represents the six Hul’qumi’num First Nations (Cowichan, Chemainus, Penelakut, Lyackson, Halalt, Lake Cowichan), whose territories span the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island. These lands were almost entirely sold off by the Federal government in 1887 to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, in order to finance the construction of the E&N Railroad from Nanaimo to Victoria, which enabled BC and Vancouver Island to join confederation and become part of Canada.

To this day, there are Hul’qumi’num elders who still don’t know how that happened, how they lost their rights to the land. The Hul’qumi’num First Nations never ceded these lands and were never consulted or compensated. Over the years, the lands have changed hands many times amongst various corporate owners. Today they are mostly owned by the “Big Three” private timber companies: TimberWest, Island Timberlands, and Hancock Timber, who are extensively logging the last of the old-growth on these lands and flipping a good portion for real estate development.

Robert is in the unenviable position of having to reach consensus with six different First Nations, while at the same time dealing with the logging companies and both levels of government to try and recover some remedy for what’s been lost. Through internal working groups with Hul’qumi’num leaders, elders, women, and youth, Robert has been entrusted to speak on behalf of these six nations with one voice in their Treaty negotiations with the Governments of Canada and British Columbia.

However, negotiations hit a wall every time because the Federal Government refuses to consider any sort of expropriation, resource sharing, revenue sharing, or any other possible scenario with regards to private lands for the purpose of settling Treaties. When a First Nation sits down at the table with the government to talk about Treaties, the first thing they say is that they are talking about Crown land, not private land. But for Hul’qumi’num, there is very little Crown land within their traditional territories. 85% of their territory is comprised of private E&N rail lands.

Reaching an impasse in their negotiations with the Federal government, Robert and the Hul’qumi’num Nations have had to seek justice outside of Canada. In 2007, they brought a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on the basis that Hul’qumi’num’s human rights had been violated, specifically their right to property, and that there were lasting damages still being felt to this day as a direct result of the privatization of these lands. Despite Canada’s objections that Hul’qumi’num had not yet exhausted all their legal remedies in Canada, the IACHR agreed that there were no effective legal remedies in Canada, as no Canadian court had ever recognized indigenous peoples’ rights to property. They are still awaiting a decision on this matter, which will determine whether Hul’qumi’num’s human rights have been violated.

Catch Robert Morales’ at this indigenous land rights forum tomorrow (Tuesday) evening in Victoria (see facebook event page). 

Learn more about the Hul’qumi’num case at the Inter-American Commission in this series of videos of Robert Morales’ recent presentation on the subject, co-hosted by Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada and Amnesty International.



About the Author

Daniel Pierce

Daniel J. Pierce is a Vancouver-based filmmaker with a body of work that explores the dynamics of people coming together to build resilient communities and reconnect with the laws of nature. His first documentary, The Hollow Tree, premiered at DOXA and was acquired by CBC and Knowledge in 2012. Dan has been traveling to Cortes Island since January 2012 and is producing a documentary about the ongoing logging dispute with Island Timberlands, the modern forest movement in BC, and the transition to a more holistic forestry economy.



    This may all come to a quick conclusion after the popes and the Queen of England are prosecuted in a European common court for outstanding charges this year, researches ad charges are all criminal, check site www,,


    Its about time First Nations stand up against white mans greed…Maybe then we can save this province from destruction saving whats left. They deserve to profit from what was once theirs. I hope this becomes a reality for them:)

    Dale Fitchett

    Thanks for articulating a very complex situation in a way most people can understand. My ancestors were displaced from this land in the mid 1800’s. History tends to repeat itself.

    scotty on denman

    The E&N grant is one of the weirdest tenures of land in Canada; it’s a product of situations expedited in BC a century and a half ago, and those that weren’t resolved and remain after all these years; it will multiply some of the most consequential legal decisions in Canada’s history by one of the world’s biggest ever industrial gambits; and it will raise exponentially the constant of sovereign claims with regard to aboriginal treaties extant and constitutionally owing. If there’s a number’s to describe it, it’s huge.

    Interest in the E&N lands compounds at the rate southeast Vancouver Island grows which, along with the Okanagan and the Lower Mainland, is the fastest growing region in the province. E&N Lands have underlain virtually all non-forestry economic development on the Island right up to this day; its boundaries coincide with nearly the entire range of coastal Douglas fir on Vancouver Island which, despite having once dominated the highest biomass accumulation on the planet (higher than tropical jungle), was so thoroughly logged, hardly any of these old trees remain, much less stands of them— it’s as if there was an obsession with their extermination; Today second growth is profitably logged and exported as raw logs. The E&N also contains BC’s coastal coal deposits which used to supply a huge industry and are again attracting interest. The wealth realized from the E&N Lands is mind-bogglingly huge; even after a century of rapaciously intense logging, the pecker-pole forests surviving today are still worth only a few orders of magnitude less than the original, incalculable value– another very, very big number, in any case. Likewise, it’s growth potential can hardly be known, only that the value number must be almost unimaginably big.

    The Hul’qumi’num’s problems are typical of other First Nations in the E&N: recent SCoC decisions confirm treaties are owed FNs but because the E&N Lands are nominally private, land itself, at least in respective traditional FN territories, is not a subject of treaty negotiation, as it is in the form of publicly owned Crown Land elsewhere in BC where it has formed the important part of modern treaty settlement so far; so, if there is to be negotiation concerning compensation for land taken away that doesn’t include land of some value, usefulness or potential, then these bogglingly huge numbers have to come into play— and that makes the whole thing harder, politically, legally and diplomatically. It’s always been a good excuse for the authorities to throw up their hands and say, “See! Told ya there isn’t that much money in the universe!” and plead, in their own conflicted interests, a sort of mendacious poverty on behalf of taxpayers. Fortunately decisions like Delgamuukw are blocking off the last of these ratholes.

    All this because the E&N is said to be private land. But if one asks whether there might be some aspect of it that makes it different than all other private land, it’s soon apparent that in this case the term “private” has to be qualified by E&N’s exceptional characteristics, chief among them being its role in negotiating BC’s confederation. There are many more.

    If E&N is private land, it’s private land like no other and has to be treated differently than other private title in settling FN land claims on Vancouver Island. Because BC FNs (west of the Rockies) were unconstitutionally denied comprehensive treaties, the courts have found they share sovereignty with the Crown until those treaties are made good, a position that empowers them to seek injunction against resource development in their respective traditional territories—in other words, block things like pipelines. The Hupacasath FN of Port Alberni are currently seeking a decision on Northern Gateway on the ground that, even though not on the pipeline route, the proposed tanker traffic puts its sovereign marine interests at risk and requires therefore meaningful consultation and accommodation concerning its development — and must lead ultimately to a treaty. For FNs on SE Van Isle, the E&N represents an additional barrier to settling comprehensive treaties —another reason why the peculiar status of E&N title be examined for opportunities to find compromise.

Leave a Response