BC government won’t compensate business displaced by Aboriginal title

Written By Rob Shaw

“Reconciliation should not leave people behind.”

––Scott Ellis

While B.C. cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the landmark Tsilhqot’in First Nation court case in Nemaiah Valley on Wednesday, Doug McMann was 50 kilometres away watching his guide outfitting business, and his family’s livelihood, slip away.

McMann had just received devastating news: After six years of waiting, the B.C. NDP government had denied his request for compensation after the Tsilhqot’in court victory, and the resulting recognition of Aboriginal rights and title, meant he could no longer access the Crown land upon which he had a guide outfitting certificate, near Tatlayoko Lake, in the Chilcotin.

“I’m 55-years-old and honestly we’re going broke,” said McMann, who owns Skinner Creek Hunts with his wife, Julie. “We’ve sucked this up for six years and watched our savings go out the door every year with the province [saying] we are going to make you whole and figure it out.”

“In the name of reconciliation we are losing our livelihoods and losing our businesses and savings.”

Doug McMann

McMann is one of four local guide outfitters who’ve been through the ringer with the provincial government since the Tsilhqot’in court ruling became the first declaration of Indigenous title in Canadian history. 

And he’s at the tip of a much larger issue playing out in British Columbia over the real-world consequences of reconciliation efforts, where existing businesses find themselves cut off from the land, and unable to get any help from the province.

The NDP government has already backed down once on changes to the Land Act, amidst an outcry from affected businesses and locals.

‘I’m so sorry’

McMann has been unable to access the prime hunting area in his legally-obtained guide outfitting certificate for six years, after the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations chief and council (one of the six communities that form the Tsilhqot’in nation) refused to re-sign a pathway agreement with the province that would have let him continue to hunt in the area.

McMann was promised compensation by top government officials, and said he received verbal support from Indigenous Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin and Lands Minister Nathan Cullen.

But then, last Thursday, after six years of appraisals and negotiation, the compensation package was abruptly denied by treasury board officials in the Ministry of Finance.

“The assistant deputy minister phoned me, and she has been involved since 2018, she was even at the initial meeting,” said McMann. “She said, I don’t know what to say, we thought this was going through, I’m so sorry.”

Empty promises

It’s the latest in what McMann said have been empty promises from the NDP government. 

And it comes as the BC NDP finds itself increasingly under fire for changes to land rights made as part of reconciliation agreements that could have wide-ranging impacts on existing farmers, ranchers, hunters and other uses of the provincial land base.

“B.C. is committed to a progressive and deepening government-to-government relationship with the Tsilhqot’in Nation because we see time and time again that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Premier David Eby said in a statement Wednesday.

“B.C. is committed to a progressive and deepening government-to-government relationship with the Tsilhqot’in Nation.”

David Eby

Although New Democrats are quick to take credit for reconciliation efforts with the Tsilhqot’in — which McMann said he supports — they aren’t following through with money to buy-out local ranchers, hunters, anglers and farmers who suddenly have lost access to the tenures, certificates and permissions they once held to do business on Crown land.

“I met with Murray Rankin a year ago, and he said, ‘Doug, why haven’t you sued us?’” said McMann.

“I said, Mr. Rankin, when the government says it has a moral obligation to make things whole, I actually believed our government. That’s the weird thing about it. I’ve given you guys all the chances in the world to make things right.”

“When the government says it has a moral obligation to make things whole, I actually believed [it.]”

Doug McMann

McMann has until this week refused to speak publicly about the multi-year nightmare that has become his dealings with the provincial New Democrat administration. He’s found provincial officials largely receptive and supportive to helping him. But as the years ticked by, his hope dwindled, as did his savings.

“In the name of reconciliation we are losing our livelihoods and losing our businesses and savings,” said McMann.

“To me that’s just morally wrong, and it should never happen.”

Guide outfitter Doug McMann with his hounds in West Chilcotin country. [Photo Skinner Creek Hunts]

“I don’t want to give the impression that we are blaming the First Nation. It’s the furthest thing from the truth. The land has been declared title for them. It’s theirs. They need reparations and funding. But holy Christ, man, why should I lose everything I’ve got?”

Cabinet ministers unavailable

Rankin accompanied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal Indigenous Minister Gary Anandasangaree and other cabinet ministers Wednesday to the Tsilhqot’in celebration anniversary, near McMann’s business.

In total, there were seven provincial and federal cabinet ministers at the event. Although they all issued glowing quotes about the progress being made in a news release, none were available for an interview to address the real-world consequences playing out around them.

“The province does not comment on the Treasury Board process as it is confidential,” the Ministry of Water, Lands and Resource Stewardship said in a statement.

“The province does not comment on the Treasury Board process.”

BC Ministry of Water, Lands and Resource Stewardship

Lands Minister Cullen, who was also unavailable for an interview, said in a separate statement that the government remains committed to “work on opportunities to support Tsilhqot’in acquisition of lands or businesses in the Declared Title Area on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis.”

“It must be acknowledged that the way Title was decided — through the courts —left many complex legal and practical questions unresolved,” said Cullen.

Private property issues must be addressed

Not good enough, said local MLA Lorne Doerkson, who has met with McMann and intends to push his case provincially.

“I appreciate the frustration so many of these folks are feeling,” Doerkson said in an interview.

“I fear this is probably happening in places throughout the province.”

Lorne Doerkson

There are no issues with the Tsilhqot’in nations, he said. The issue is with the province.

“The decision that saw this become title land was embraced by most people in the province,” said Doerkson, the BC Conservative MLA for Cariboo-Chilcotin.

“There are private property owners within that area that need to be addressed. People can’t just sit endlessly waiting for some sort of a solution that never comes.”

‘Intention is good, execution is terrible’

The McMann case is just one of several multi-generational family businesses failing to get government support, said Scott Ellis, CEO of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC.

“Our issue is that in this path of reconciliation the intent is good, the execution is terrible,” he said.

“Reconciliation is broken because you’ve got casualties in the process.”

The provincial failures aren’t fair to Indigenous nations either, who are simply exercising the rights won in court, and are now pitted between affected business owners and the province over compensation, said Ellis. 

“Reconciliation is broken because you’ve got casualties in the process.”

Scott Ellis

“Reconciliation should not leave people behind,” he said. “There should not be expendable businesses and expendable communities and expendable people. It’s fundamentally wrong.”

BC United critic Mike Bernier said the NDP’s mishandling of the case causes more fear about future government reconciliation efforts. 

“This specific case has sent a ripple amongst a lot of hunters and guide outfitters asking ‘Are we next?’ because the government has just bluntly said sorry for your loss you get nothing,” said Bernier.

“The concern is the next time they try to have reconciliation and arrangements with First Nations, there’s going to be a lot more people pushing back because they will be worried about it.”