The federal government issued an official apology to the Williams Lake First Nation, located in central B.C., a year after a $135-million settlement was reached over illegal settlement of its village lands.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree issued the apology, on behalf of the government, at a Sunday event outside the First Nation's band office.
It came after an emotional speech — mostly delivered in the Secwépemc language — from First Nation Elder Amy Sandy.
"This day's coming from all the work that our elders have done in the past," she said. "I put my hands up to everyone who's helped out with this."
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree, third from left, issued an apology to the Williams Lake First Nation after its lands were illegally taken in the late 1800s. Also pictured is the entire First Nation council — including Chief Willie Sellars, fourth from left, and Chris Wycotte, first from right. (Kirk Dressler)
Chris Wycotte, the director of self-government and elected councillor for the nation, oversaw the entire legal process over 30 years. He described how the illegal settlement deprived his people of homes and connection to their culture.
"We had nothing, not even one acre," he said.
Anandasangaree said the federal government was committed to addressing the harms of colonization.
"The dispossession and forced separation of Williams Lake lands has had profound impacts on you," the minister said, addressing dozens of nation members in attendance. "The government of Canada accepts responsibility for this historic injustice, and expresses its deepest regret and sincere apology."
The apology came nearly 165 years after the settlement began in 1859, according to the First Nation, in the land now known as the City of Williams Lake.
Then-chief William — for whom the First Nation, city and nearby lake are all named — gave permission to a settler to build a cabin within village lands. The colonial government subsequently set aside some of that land for an Indian reservation.
Kúkpi7 Willie Sellars said the nation would send prayers to the ancestors, as the federal government issued an apology. (Brady Strachan/CBC)
By 1861, however, most of the village lands had been taken by white settlers. That drove many of the First Nation members to nearby hills, with little land and no opportunity to cultivate crops.
"In 1879, Chief William wrote that our people were threatened by starvation because 'the land on which my people lived for 500 years was taken by a white man,'" reads an information sheet from the nation.
At the Sunday event, Williams Lake chief Willie Sellars said that the apology showed that reconciliation was "not a buzzword" in the nation.
Prolonged legal challenge
In 1994, the First Nation launched a legal battle over the illegal settlement — following Wycotte's discovery of some documents in Victoria's provincial archives.
A total of 4,000 pages of evidence was available to the First Nation, including Chief William's letters to the federal government describing his nation's plight.
The First Nation advanced the claim through a process called the Indian Claims Commission, and then the Specific Claims Tribunal. In 2014, the tribunal ruled Canada breached its obligations to the First Nation by allowing it to be unlawfully evicted from its traditional lands.
However, Canada appealed the decision as the legal dispute continued for another four years before the country's highest court affirmed the tribunal's ruling in 2018, sparking three years of negotiations toward a settlement for damages.
Members of the Williams Lake First Nation and community members gather to light a sacred flame, following the announcement of second phase investigation into St. Joseph's mission residential school, on January 25, 2023. (Brady Strachan/CBC)
Last year, a $135-million settlement was reached — close to the maximum of $150 million that could have been awarded.
The settlement's terms were ratified by the nation's members shortly after. Under the terms of the settlement, elders are eligible for a one-time payment of $25,000, with each adult member of the band getting $1,500 per year.
Funds were also placed into a trust for those under 18 in the nation, with Sellars saying it has free rein to use the settlement money for programs, services and capital projects.
"This claim is a precedent-setting claim, where pre-Confederation claims can go through the courts now," Wycotte said. "We kicked the door down on this one.
"All the First Nations across Canada can rely on our claim to take a similar type of claim to court."