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Delgamuukw v. British Columbia

Angela Sterritt

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The Etchings of the Land Back Movement

The Delgamuukw case had incredible impacts on Indigenous people, the public and case law. I know, because my Gitxsan family members and Elders testified in it, and as a journalist, I’ve heard from dozens of people who said the verdict changed their lives and their way of thinking with the promise of reclaiming jurisdiction over their lands.

The trial, known as Degamuukw vs Her majesty The Queen, brought forth by Wet’suwet’en chief Gisday’way (Alfred Joseph) and Gitxsan Chief Delgamuukw (Earl Muldoe), began in Smithers in 1987 and moved 1,200 km away to Vancouver in 1988. Despite Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en protests against the move, Chief Justice Allan McEachern claimed that the inconvenience to the courts was greater than the inconvenience to the two Indigenous groups that were claiming ownership and jurisdiction over 58,000 square kilometres of territory in northwest B.C.

I grew up in East Vancouver, listening to my dad speak about how his cousin Neil Sterritt Jr. and his uncle Neil Sterritt Sr. fought the colonials’ dispossession of our lands in colonial courts, to prove that our Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en’s lands weren’t up for grabs. I remember seeing newspaper articles showing Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en leaders in full regalia on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, speaking about the importance of the case. The trial took place over 374 days, from May 11, 1987 to June 30, 1990, in Vancouver and Smithers, British Columbia.

According to now-esteemed Gitxsan Elder Dimdiigibuu (Ardythe Wilson), Elders and Chiefs teach us that the “land and all its resources is like our bank. It is the Treasure Box from which all Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en life flow. What the governments are doing is robbing our bank.”1

But in 1991, Justice Allan McEachern ruled that their title was extinguished when B.C. joined Confederation. He called our lives prior to colonization “nasty, brutish and short.” So the two nations appealed the ruling in 1993. Dimdiigibuu tells me, “We never gave up our land. We never lost it in war. We never signed it away in a treaty. It is still ours.”

In 1997, the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en took their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada. It was hailed as a landmark victory for Aboriginal Rights and Title. The judges ruled that Indigenous people in British Columbia have ancestral land rights protected by section 35 (1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which had not been extinguished by colonization. Aboriginal title was recognized as an “existing Aboriginal right.” It also confirmed Indigenous oral testimony as legitimate as other forms of evidence. However, it was not a declaration of title.

Despite this, everyone I know is proud of the case. It set a precedent for other cases like the 2014 Tŝilhqot’in decision, which led to the first declaration of Aboriginal title in Canada. It also showed other Nations that it is possible to stand their ground when it comes to self-determination on their lands. For Indigenous youth growing up in Vancouver and hearing about our parents and relatives fighting for our land and title rights in Delgamuukw, it gave us a sense of pride and hope of what was attainable, that our self-determination would not be overlooked and to keep fighting for our rightful space in this country.  And it showed Canadians that Indigenous people are unwilling to let governments and companies help themselves to Indigenous lands.

Angela Sterritt

Angela Sterritt is an award-winning investigative journalist and author from the Gitanmaax community of the Gitxsan Nation on her dad’s side and from Bell Island Newfoundland on her maternal side. Sterritt has worked as a television, radio, and digital journalist for more than a decade. Her book Unbroken, a work that is part memoir and part investigation into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women, was published on May 30, 2023, by Greystone Books.


1 Don Monet and Skanu’u (Ardythe Wilson), Colonialism on Trial: Indigenous Land Rights and the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en Sovereignty Case, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1991, p. 53.