WATCH: The Tsawout First Nation is suing for the return of a $54 million island. They claim James Island was part of the 1852 treaty between then-Governor James Douglas and the Saanich Tribe. James Island is located in the Salish Sea, just north of Sidney Island and directly across from Central Saanich. The Tsawout say they’ve hit a wall in terms of negotiating with the federal and provincial governments, that’s why they’ve taken their fight to the courts. Mary Griffin reports.
From the Tsawout First Nation reserve, Coun. Mavis Underwood looked out across the Salish Sea on Friday.
"It's really hard to look at James Island. and realize that we can't always go there. There's security there that will tell us we are trespassing, that when we're looking and we're hungry for fish, that we just can't sometime go over there," Underwood said.
The island is currently owned by Seattle billionaire Craig McCaw. The latest assessed value is more than $54 million. But the Tsawout First Nation says it was once part of their territory. And they've filed a civil claim for its return.
The First Nation's lawyer John Gailus says they are seeking the return of the island or damages.
"The claim is that they want James Island back. But if not, they would get damages for the unlawful taking. And the loss of use calculation since the 1870s," Gailus said.
Signed by Governor James Douglas and the Saanich Tribe in 1852, the Douglas Treaty sets aside First Nations village sites and “enclosed lands”, along with hunting and fishing rights. The Tsawout say that includes James Island, and they want it back.
Underwood said they are not going to back down.
"We have a very vested interest in acquiring it back. We believe that we never surrendered it. And it was never purchased from us."
The island is now styled as a luxury resort and includes a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, boat house, with cottages and main house. Over the years, the government subdivided it and sold a parcel to an explosives manufacturing company.
"It's part of our traditional land holdings. And that's what we really want to have recognized. That it's our birthright to have that island back," Underwood said.
The province issued this written statement:
"The provincial government respects and recognizes that Tsawout First Nation has a historic Douglas treaty. The Crown must act with honour and integrity, and interpret the treaty in a manner that gives meaning to promises made by the Crown and benefits the people of Tsawout First Nation."
The province is required to respond to Tsawout’s notice of claim through the court. However, as part of our commitment to reconciliation, the province will also reach out to Tsawout to seek to resolve these issues outside of the court, government-to-government, based on building a respectful relationship.
The province is committed to working with First Nations and the Government of Canada to meaningfully recognize Aboriginal rights and title, to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action."