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Negotiating Land Claims

The Nisga'a Nation (British Columbia)

The Nisga'a people of northwestern British Columbia have lived in the Nass River valley for more than 10,000 years. Traditionally, they lived off of the abundance of the land the Creator had given them: hunting, fishing, trapping and trading their goods with other villages and nations. When they made contact with Europeans, the Nisga'a numbered about 8,000 people and had several thriving communities. As in other areas of Turtle Island, smallpox and measles, European diseases for which the Nisga'a had no immune defenses, were devastating to their population; by 1900 only about 800 Nisga'a people remained. Despite the injustices of residential schools and bans on their traditional cultural practices like the Potlatch, this small group of people survived and grew. Today, there are 6,000 Nisga'a people around the world. About half still live in four villages near the Nass River.

Lately, the Nisga'a have been making international headlines; they have just negotiated the first modern-day treaty between an Indigenous nation and the governments of Canada and British Columbia. It is the first treaty ever signed west of the Rocky Mountains and is a goal they have been working towards for more than 100 years!

The Nisga'a never gave up their title to the lands on which they traditionally lived. In 1887, Nisga'a Chiefs paddled into Victoria Harbour and went to the BC Parliament houses to demand recognition of their title and negotiation of treaties with the BC government. They were turned away by the province's premier. Three years later they created the Nisga'a Land Committee. Its job was to campaign for the reinstatement of territorial rights and self-government. Over the years, the Nisga'a tried several times to have the law recognize that they had never given up any title to the lands of the Nass River valley. It was only in 1973 that the Judges of the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with them, and that was when the federal government decided to start treaty negotiations with the Nisga'a people.

The Nisga'a Agreement, was initialed by everyone involved in the summer of 1998. In November 1998, the Nisga'a people held a referendum in which they voted overwhelmingly to accept the terms of the treaty. It now has to be approved by the provincial government in BC and the federal government in Ottawa.

Once it receives final approval, the treaty gives the Nisga'a people title to about 2000 square kilometers of land, including the natural resources on and below those lands. They will have the right to negotiate their own contracts, to make laws regarding culture, public works, traffic and transportation, land use, marriage, health and child welfare. The Nisga'a will also have their own police and court system, although they have agreed to abide by the laws of Canada and British Columbia and to pay taxes. Within the agreement, the Nisga'a have recognized that non-Native people living on Nisga'a land should have a voice in issues which affect them and so certain public bodies, like those to do with health, will have seats set aside for non-Natives.

Over the next 15 years, BC and Ottawa will transfer just over 190 million dollars to the Nisga'a as part of the treaty settlement. Much of this money will be used for education. Nisga'a Chief Joseph Gosnell has described the Agreement in this way, "…clause by clause, the treaty emphasizes self-reliance, personal responsibility and modern education. It also encourages, for the first time, investment in Nisga'a lands and resources and allows us to pursue meaningful employment from the resources of our own territory for our own people. It gives us a fighting chance to establish legitimate economic independence, and to prosper in common with our non-Aboriginal neighbours in a new and proud Canada."


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