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Canada's aboriginals win landmark case

Thursday, June 26 17:37:15

Aboriginal peoples in the province of British Columbia can stake a broad claim to their traditional territories due to a landmark victory at the Supreme Court of Canada.

It's a decision that natural resource companies had warned would create investor uncertainty.

Today's ruling marks the first time the Supreme Court has recognized aboriginal title to a specific piece of land, and it is expected to have widespread application in the resource-rich Pacific Coast province, much of which is subject to unresolved land claims.

The case involved a claim to 1,750 sq km (676 sq miles) of land in central part of British Columbia. The court ruled that the Tsilhqot'in Nation, a group of six native bands, is entitled to prevent forestry on this tract.

It overturned an appeals court decision that had restricted aboriginals to having title only in the small areas of the land where they had proven continuous and intensive physical use.

"This is the end of denying rights and title," Chief Joe Alphonse, the Tsilhqot'in tribal chairman, said in a statement.

"This case is about us regaining our independence, to be able to govern our own nation and rely on the natural resources of our land."

Despite ruling that the Tsilhqot'in can ban commercial logging, the Supreme Court said the government can allow some resource projects to go ahead, even if they infringe on aboriginal title, in some cases where there is "a compelling and substantial public interest".

The decision adds conditions, however, that would be expected to make it more difficult, although not necessarily impossible, for developments such as pipelines, mines and forestry to proceed without aboriginal consent.

There are no new pipelines being proposed to pass through this particular area. Enbridge Inc's planned Northern Gateway pipeline route lies well to the north. However the decision could stiffen the resolve of native groups to try to block projects or demand extra concessions.

In addition to proving compelling public interest, the government would have to prove a proportional impact, that the benefits of development projects would not be outweighed by adverse effects on aboriginals. And infringements cannot proceed if they would deprive future generations of aboriginals of the benefit of the land.

Resource companies have said recognition of broader territorial title for aboriginals would undermine their ability to attract capital and realize a return on resource projects.

The dispute over the Tsilhqot'in land began in 1983 when British Columbia granted Carrier Lumber Ltd a license to cut trees in part of the territory at issue. The aboriginals objected and blockaded a bridge the company was upgrading. Twelve years of court wrangling over aboriginal title followed.

"The nature of aboriginal title is that it confers on the group that holds it the exclusive right to decide how the land is used and the right to benefit from those uses...," the court said in its 8-0 decision. (Reuters)