Court proceedings were held for two days in October, with testimony detailing historical Ahousaht settlement in multiple locations in the First Nation's territory.
The Specific Claims court action launched by Ahousaht against the Government of Canada over lands they say were wrongly taken from the nation resumed for two days of hearings held over video conferencing.
According to Tyee Ha’wilth Maquinna and other Ahousaht elders, the nation has fought consistently over the past several decades for the return of important sites that they say were wrongfully alienated from Ahousaht through government mechanisms, like the Pre-emption Act, timber licenses, cannery leases, parks and private ownership. Pre-emption was a method of acquiring provincial Crown land by claiming it for settlement and agricultural purposes.
Over the course of the two days of court proceedings on Oct. 7 and 8, Ahousaht people reiterated that they have never ceded the lands that were alienated from them via various government land-use programs. Generation after generation of Ahousaht leadership has fought to have several parcels of land returned to their Ha’wiih. Many of the parcels had Ahousaht homes constructed on them that stood as late as the 1950s, as reported by witness testimony.
At one point in the proceedings, Hasheukumis, (Richard George, son of Tyee Ha’wilth Maquinna) said he was sitting in for his father during the proceedings. Judge William Grist allowed him to make a statement which, he said, would be allowed into the record.
Hasheukumis spoke of the history of Blunden Island in Ahousaht territory and the great battles that took place there. Blunden Island sits northwest off the coast of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound; both are included in Vargas Provincial Park.
“At one time there were only 40 Ahousaht left and they fenced themselves in on Blunden Island,” he stated. It was from there that they fought to defend Ahousaht territory.
“Kleeushin was the head chief of Ahousaht; I will be the 17th (head chief) when the seat passes to me,” said Hasheukumis.
He went on to say that Kleeushin defended the island fiercely and blood was shed.
“And then the McKenna McBride Commission came and took Blunden away from Chief Billy, who was a descendant of Kleeushin,” he continued.
Hasheukumis said that he needed to state strongly that in Ahousaht’s eyes, Blunden Island has always been theirs.
“Blunden is sacred, it is where we come from…it is Ahousaht,” he said.
Besides Blunden Island, Ahousaht is fighting for the return of or compensation for several important sites on the fringes of Flores Island, including sites in Shelter Inlet, Sydney Inlet and Warn Bay.
Ahousaht witnesses were allowed to speak about their knowledge of the history of the various sites included in the claim.
Ha’wilth James Swan spoke to what his father and grandfather told him about Manosaht territory and Jenny’s Beach. Manosaht is one of the smaller nations that amalgamated with Ahousaht.
Jenny’s Beach is the name of a Manosaht site located in Shelter Inlet, northeast of Flores Island. Swan testified that his relative Jenny lived there; he didn’t know her Nuu-chah-nulth name.
He stated that the site was important for many reasons. It was where Manosahts harvested a variety of shell fish and fin fish. Jenny, he stated, lived there year-round and it was there that she handed her title to Luke Swan, who was James’s grandfather.
“It’s important for my family because that is where the transfer of chieftainship ceremony happened,” Swan told the court.
While Jenny lived in Shelter Inlet permanently, many Ahousaht families still moved from village site to village site, following the food resources and seasons.
Swan testified that his late grandfather lived in many places including Opnit (adjacent to Maquinna Park/Hot Springs Cove), Hot Springs Cove, Hisnit and Pretty Girl Cove.
“They moved to access the resources and lived in many places; he was living in Hot Springs Cove when he got his seat,” said Swan.
Swan was asked to identify known clam beds in the Shelter Inlet area. He identified the areas but said he couldn’t recall their names.
“My father and grandfather used to talk in native; I didn’t learn it,” he said, adding that the places have names that he has saved in his records.
Homes and smokehouses once located throughout territory
Harvey Robinson was the next Ahousaht witness to testify. He stated that his mother’s name was Elsie and that she came from the Little family. Robinson said he heard family history about Jenny’s beach from his mother.
“I took her for a boat ride to have her show me places where they lived,” Robinson testified.
One place was the Jenny’s Beach, where he said his mother’s family would harvest clams, oysters and fish in the fall and winter months.
Robinson’s grandparents, William and Mary Little, along with their children spent fall and winter months at Jenny’s Beach where they would smoke their clams, oysters, chum and Coho salmon.
“My mother told me there were other family cabins and smokehouses there,” said Robinson.
When asked which families were there he answered the Swans and Louies.
When the weather warmed up, the Little family moved to their other homes at Opnit or Pretty Girl Cove.
The third witness was Aaron Blake Evans, a researcher hired by Ahousaht to prepare reports that support Ahousaht’s specific land claims. He introduced two reports from 2010 and 2020.
Blake described himself as a researcher, archeologist and anthropologist. He compiled information from archives, records and various other sources regarding alienation of lands from Ahousaht. His report dated Sept. 1, 2010 looks at that history using letters, maps, and documents that show the transaction history of the parcels of land.
In his testimony, Blake showed several historic maps drawn by ship captains and archived government land maps, many of which indicated that Ahousaht people had homes and smokehouses in places like Blunden Island, Pretty Girl Cove and Shelter Inlet. Some of the lands were taken through the Pre-emption Act.
The Specific Claims Process was introduced by the federal government in 2007 to accelerate the resolution of land claim issues. The process is intended to ensure impartiality and fairness, greater transparency, faster processing and better access to mediation.
At the close of Blake’s testimony, Justice Grist indicated that there was still another Ahousaht man that is waiting to testify and that there was hope that there could be a site visit in spring or summer 2021, but scheduling would be difficult with uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alex Hughes, counsel for Canada, said the Crown is preparing an expert report that they expect won’t be ready until the summer or fall of 2021.