The Victoria Times Colonist staff writer Les Leyne gives credit to a past BC Supreme Court Judge David Vickers in his editorial article “title decision validates judges work.” And of course this is as it should be. Vickers did display more than due diligence in pulling together all the evidence in his 2007 judgement to recommend Aboriginal Title in the Xeni Gweten land claim. But if we are really interested in justice we should also give credit to the little village of Xeni Gweten who have for decades peacefully, and persistently defended against insolent incursions into their territories. They have done this with little or no outside help. This takes not just a few years of dedication, discipline and teamwork -but generations. In particular I want to highlight the work of the Xeni Gweten Chief Roger William who brought the Xeni Gweten Land Claim to this important resolution.
During the course of inquiry that resulted in tens of thousands of pages of testimony Roger William was asked 8000 questions. The patience, persistence and devotion to the truth of Chief Roger William is something that seems to be too easily overlooked by the media. Withstanding the weeks of gruelling questions by the Province and their agents to discredit the Xeni Gweten title claim must have been very, very difficult. Judge Vickers provided the structure for what would become the decision to recognize Xeni Gweten title to their lands. But it was Roger and the Xeni Gweten that provided the content for the decision. And they must have done this with incredible strength against adversity, impeccable teamwork and spirit, to survive it all, with their claim validated.
Back in 1998 I had the good fortune to work on a forest community economic development project with Roger William and the Xeni Gweten. I had some experience in interviewing community members (in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities) about their community assets for developing business. Everyone has their daily chores to attend to and I thought it would be difficult to get access to the key community members. I thought it would take weeks to come to collectively understand the best community development ideas for the community. But I was wrong. Chief Roger William and community members explored the answers to my questions with me. Without presuming what course our community forestry economic planning would take, we uncovered the best information at exactly the right time from exactly the right people, all within a few days of my arrival in the community. The thing that most impressed me was how the project was given respect by all who we interviewed. As an outside non-Aboriginal consultant I wasn’t expecting so much goodwill and help. None of our interviewees were paid and they all were asked to come to the Band Office to talk to me. Roger and his staff had the most effective ways to contact the people that we needed to interview. Community ‘runners’ would ‘put the word out’ that their knowledge was requested at the band office and within days we had a structure for our community economic plan. I remember that Roger and his economic development staff offered their ideas as community leaders, ‘just as information’ to be considered in our overall planning inquiry. It seemed that Roger and his staff did not want to presume what would be the outcome of our plan without first carefully listening to the whole. Of course, it was a huge honour for me to take notes for Roger William and his community advisers. Because of the teamwork and community coordination displayed by Roger William and the Xeni Gweten, we were able to effectively accomplish a few weeks of interview work, in just a few days.
We discovered (and it was no surprise) in our plan that the biggest barrier to forest community economic development for the Xeni Gweten was the lack of investment capital for their projects. While outsiders were helping themselves to the natural capital of the Xeni Gweten resources, the Tshilqotin peoples remained impoverished. I am hopeful that now with Aboriginal title to their resources confirmed, there will be more opportunity for the Xeni Gweten to grow in ways that their community members find acceptable.