First Nation reclaims traditional territory with help from a B.C. geologist

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For the first time in over 100 years, Kukpi7 (Chief) Hillary Adam of the Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation can now walk freely across a vast swath of his people’s traditional territory. The ranchland bordering the Fraser River near Dog Creek, B.C., was for decades owned by settlers, who ranched cattle on the property’s rare grasslands and forests.

It was sold back to the First Nation this month by wealthy Vancouver geologist Ross Beaty, who purchased it last spring to return it to its pre-colonial state. Beaty made his fortune in mining, leading companies that operate worldwide, before dedicating himself to environmentalism around 2008.

The province paid for the land and will give the nation about $3.6 million to help it continue ranching the area as part of ongoing treaty negotiations. Beaty has committed all of the sale’s proceeds to a trust dedicated to protecting the ranch’s environment and biodiversity.

The agreement will transfer the 7,800-hectare ranch, along with grazing rights for an additional 56,000 hectares of land, to the Stswecem’c Xget’tem. A hectare is roughly the size of a sports pitch.

Stswecem’c Xget’tem elders have pushed for the land to be returned to the nation since colonization, but those calls “always fell on deaf ears,” Adam explained. Getting the land back is “taking a step towards reconciliation, not only with the province, but with Ross Beatty as well.”

The nation plans on continuing to ranch cattle on the land. It is looking at growing other crops like produce, hemp or cannabis as well, Adam said. The goal is to help improve the remote nation’s food security while promoting biodiversity and turning a profit from the farm. Deer and moose are becoming increasingly hard to find, and meat from the ranch will help cover the shortfall.

The transfer comes amid growing awareness of the key role Indigenous people play in helping conserve the planet’s threatened biodiversity. Indigenous people make up about five per cent of the global population, but protect nearly 80 per cent of the biodiversity left in the world.

Supporting their stewardship is slowly becoming a priority for some governments. That includes Canada, which pledged nearly $800 million at the COP15 biodiversity conference this month to support Indigenous stewardship programs. But experts say that while these government initiatives are essential to reconciliation and conservation, the ranch transfer highlights the unique role that individuals can also play in giving land back.

“I think that it’s largely in response to how slow the government has been in transferring land back to Indigenous people,” said William Nikolakis, a lawyer and professor at the University of British Columbia who studies Indigenous rights and natural resource law.

Government-to-government negotiations and court cases are complex, filled with overlapping land claims, negotiations, consultations and other formal processes, he explained.

For the first time in over 100 years, Kukpi7 (Chief) Hillary Adam of the Stswecem’c Xget’tem First Nation can now walk freely across a vast swath of his people’s traditional territory. #LandBack #Reconciliation

“We can’t move as nimbly as a private sector operator. We have to do our due diligence, we have to make sure there’s fairness on all sides,” said B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin. Reconciliation, he added, “isn’t just a government responsibility, it’s the public’s, the non-Indigenous population’s (too).”

Private buyers like Beaty don’t face the same kinds of obstacles, making it easier for them to quickly transfer land to First Nations, Nikolakis said. Land donations could present a “huge opportunity” for Indigenous people to regain control of their land quickly without jeopardizing their ability to join formal treaty or land claims negotiations with the federal and provincial or territorial governments.

“Land is foundational for First Nations communities to pursue self-governance and realize their full potential and vision,” he said. “It’s a critical and foundational step for reconciliation.”

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