Profile of Roger William, chief, Xeni Gwet'in First Nation

Tsilhqot’in chief led his people to a landmark aboriginal rights victory 

Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William will be awarded an honorary law degree on May 29 by the University of Northern British Columbia | ​Rob Kruyt

Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and carrying a native drum, Chief Roger William looked a bit out of place as he stood outside a BC Supreme Court courtroom, where the Wilderness Committee was defending itself in a defamation suit brought by Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO) over criticisms of its New Prosperity mine.

William is no stranger to courtrooms, however. Over the past two decades, he has spent literally months in court, and his name is attached to one of the most important aboriginal rights cases in Canadian history, and on May 29, he will be awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Northern British Columbia.

On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that William’s people, the Xeni Gwet’in (pronounced “hunee gwateen”), had proven outright title over 1,750 square kilometres of Crown land southwest of Williams Lake in the Nemiah Valley, and aboriginal rights to hunt, gather, trap and catch wild horses over an area twice that size.

William’s most recent attendance at court in Vancouver had nothing to do with that case, however.

For once, he wasn’t there to be cross-examined.

He was there to show his support for the Wilderness Committee, one of the non-aboriginal organizations that helped the Tsilhqot’in in its fight to win control over the Nemiah Valley.

Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity mine lies within the area to which the Xeni Gwet’in hold aboriginal rights but not title, and well within the Dasiqox Tribal Park recently declared by the Tsilhqot’in.

Taseko is not the only resource company that has locked horns with the Xeni Gwet’in. The William case began with a dispute with Carrier Lumber Ltd. more than 30 years ago. And more than 100 years before that, the Tsilhqot’in rebelled when white settlers tried to push a new road through their territory without permission during the gold rush.

William’s band, the Xeni Gwet’in, occupying the Nemiah Valley, is one of six tribal groups within the greater Tsilhqot’in First Nation. Despite the Tsilhqot’in’s reputation for being fiercely protective of their land and way of life, William does not come across as combative. He is friendly, quick to smile and talkative.

Born on a farm at Konni Lake in the Nemiah Valley, William, 49, was raised by a single mother, Eileen Sammy William. He raised cattle until he sold them a few years ago to focus on his role as chief. He spoke no English until he was sent to residential school. From the age of six until graduation, he attended Indian residential schools in Williams Lake and Kamloops.

As a young man, he played hockey and rode bulls, winning the bull-riding championship for the Cariboo-Chilcotin rodeo district in 1993.

“I was in the rodeo for 15 years,” William said. “I rode bulls. I did some roping once in a while, and I rode saddle bronc once in a while.”

He also still rides in mountain races – the Tsilhqot’in version of downhill mountain bike racing, but on horseback.

The horse is an important part of Tsilhqot’in culture. The Brittany Triangle in the Nemiah Valley has been described as a kind of Shangri-La – so remote and pristine that it still supports an estimated 1,000 wild mustangs. That explains why one of the aboriginal rights recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada was the right to catch wild horses.

It was the threat to that pristine area posed by logging that kindled William’s political ambitions. He recalls attending a community meeting as a teenager, where the Ministry of Forests informed his community that the Nemiah Valley would logged.

“The Ministry of Forests did a presentation that they may be logging out Nemiah and, whether we liked it or not, it probably would happen. There was no consultation. That stuck in my head.”

BC Hydro also had plans to build roads and dams in the area. But the Tsilhqot’in have a reputation for repelling invaders, as evidenced by the Chilcotin Uprising of 1864, in which 19 road builders and settlers were killed by the Tsilhqot’in. That episode ended after six Tsilhqot’in warriors, who were invited to what they believed were peace talks, were arrested and later hanged – a betrayal that still lives in the collective memory of the Tsilhqot’in.

From an early age, William was motivated to fight to protect this one last untouched refuge – the Nemiah Valley – from the clear-cutting that had begun in other parts of the Tsilhqot’in territory.

Fresh out of high school, William ran for band council when he was 19 but lost. He took a one-year correspondence school course in business, then ran for council again in 1989, when he was 22, and was elected. Three years later, he was elected chief, a position he has held since, except for 2008 to 2013, when Marilyn Baptiste served as chief.

Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, first met William in the 1980s.

“Some of the things that struck me in those days was how young Roger was,” Foy said. “He was a very young elected leader, and I think time has shown that those people who elected him knew what they were doing.”

In 1989, the Tsilhqot’in published a declaration forbidding commercial mining, logging, road building and hydro dams in the Nemiah Valley without their permission.

But without proven title, the declaration had no legal force. The Tsilhqot’in resorted to roadblocks to keep industry out.

In 1998, the Ministry of Forests announced it would allow logging in the Brittany Triangle, with or without the permission of the Tsilhqot’in. The Xeni Gwet’in responded by filing an aboriginal title claim.

But such a claim required the consent of the entire Tsilhqot’in Nation and not all Tsilhqot’in – who comprise six distinct groups living in 16 communities – were necessarily opposed to logging. To succeed, the Xeni Gwet’in needed all six bands on board.

“A band can’t take a title and rights case to court – you need the whole nation,” William explained.

William’s youth helped him connect with younger Tsilhqot’in, and his fluency in his own language helped him connect with elders.

He managed to get all the bands in agreement, and a claim was launched on behalf of the Xeni Gwet’in and the Tsilhqot’in in William’s name.

The trial started in BC Supreme Court in 2002 and ended in partial victory in 2007 after 339 days of testimony. All parties involved – the Tsilhqot’in and B.C. and federal governments – appealed. The B.C. Court of Appeal recognized aboriginal title, but only “postage stamp” parcels of land where continuous occupation had been proven, not the greater claimed area.

The Tsilhqot’in appealed, and the Supreme Court of Canada expanded the title area. It gave the Tsilhqot’in ownership of 1,750 square kilometres of Crown land southwest of Williams Lake. That’s just 2% of the Tsilhqot’in traditional territory, but a sizable portion of the Xeni Gwet’in’s territory.

As William points out, getting ownership of land is just the first step. He said there is a lack of funding for education and housing, and a lot of work to be done to improve life for the Xeni Gwet’in and the greater Tsilhqot’in First Nation.

“We want to be able to put a plan in place with Canada and B.C. to get caught up,” William said.

William is married and has three sons and a daughter. In addition to his role as chief of the Xeni Gwet’in, William is a director on the Cariboo Regional District and is a member of the Cariboo Chilcotin Aboriginal Training and Education Council.