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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 10:33 GMT
Battle for oil-rich Canadian islands
The Canadian government and the Nis'gaa sign treaty
Other Indians have settled their claim by treaty
By Ian Gunn in Vancouver

One of Canada's most prominent aboriginal groups has begun a major court battle that could result in significant changes to land claims in the country.

The Haida Indians have one of the strongest land claim cases ever seen in Canada and the courts could well hand them a substantial victory.

There are huge areas of timber and - more valuable still - massive reserves of offshore oil and natural gas

The Haida are claiming all of the Queen Charlotte Islands - an area of land and sea rich in natural resources on Canada's northern Pacific coast.

The court case comes after almost a decade of unsuccessful negotiation over land rights between aboriginal groups and the government in the region.

High stakes

Most legal observers say they are likely to win and likely to change for ever the way governments have to share land and resources with Canada's native groups.

There is little dispute that the Haida have lived on the sprawling Queen Charlotte Islands for thousands of years.

Canadian forest
The ownership of much publicly-held land in British Columbia is being contested
They have never signed a treaty with any government and they say that means they still own the islands.

If the courts agree, it will force governments to involve the Haida in every level of land and resource planning.

This particular case has added importance because of the islands' natural resources, which the Haida claim as well.

There are huge areas of timber and - more valuable still - massive reserves of offshore oil and natural gas.

'Record of plunder'

The British Columbia government is widely expected to lift the long-standing ban on oil drilling in the region later this year, raising the stakes in this case to billions of dollars.

The President of the Haida, Guujaaw, says he is not interested in the money.

He says Canadian governments have an appalling record of plundering natural resources, but under Haida control any forestry or drilling would be limited as well as environmentally friendly.

The British Columbia government says it is confident agreements can yet be reached with aboriginal groups to share the resources.

The Haida say their only alternative is a court battle that the government may come to regret.

See also:

30 Oct 01 | Americas
Canada to settle Indian abuse cases
24 Oct 01 | Americas
Quebec Indians agree dam deal
20 Jun 00 | Americas
Canadian natives sue churches
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