Rio Tinto Alcan returns Cheslatta Carrier Nation’s traditional territory

Rio Tinto Alcan completed the transfer of 11,000 acres of land valued at $1.2 million, to the Cheslatta Carrier Nation.

(Top) Cheslatta Carrier Nation member Abel Peters

(Top) Cheslatta Carrier Nation member Abel Peters

Last Monday, Rio Tinto Alcan officially completed the transfer of approximately 11,000 acres of land, with an assessed value of $1.2 million, to the Cheslatta Carrier Nation.

The land transfer was made official in a ceremony held at the Grassy Plains Community Hall.

During the ceremony, Cheslatta member, Abel Peters, aged 89, handed over six vintage Canadian dollar bills to Paul Henning vice president of strategic projects for Rio Tinto Alcan, as full payment for the land.

According to Cheslatta Carrier Nation’s Chief Richard Peters, the terms of the 2012 land transaction are much more favourable now, than 60 years ago when, in 1952, 29 year old Abel Peters translated the terms of surrender of the land to the Cheslatta people.

The relationship between Cheslatta Carrier Nation and Alcan Inc. now known as Rio Tinto Alcan, began almost 60 years ago when the company purchased land from the federal government to create a reservoir for its hydro electric project in Kemano. As a result of the purchase, on April 21, 1952, the Cheslatta people were forced to surrender their land when the company built a series of dams on the headwaters of the Nechako River, as part of the Kemano I hydro electric project.

With just two weeks notice, the people gathered what they could carry and walked out of their territory, while their villages were burnt to the ground.

Since then, the relationship between the Cheslatta people and Rio Tinto Alcan has gone from non existent, to productive and cooperative.

In January 2000, both groups  agreed on a relationship protocol where they pledged to work at growing a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship together. Over the next 11 years they embarked on various initiatives, the priority of which was the return of Cheslatta’s traditional territory.

In December 2011 they met together in Kemano at the plant, 75 kilometres Southeast of Kitimat, to shake hands and agree on the details of the land transfer. The approximate 11,000 acres received will be held by Cheslatta Carrier Nation as fee simple property [a form of freehold ownership. It is the most common way that real estate is owned and is ordinarily the most complete ownership interest that can be had in real property] rather than as an Indian reservation.

They accepted the land with the understanding that it will continue to be subject to Rio Tinto Alcan’s operational plan, including high water requirements and the potential for shore erosion.

During the official ceremony last week, there was singing, dancing and a feast of moose meat, deer, salmon and bannock. The walls of the community hall were covered with dozens of posters showing images of the land, the people and the youth, both before and after the flood of 1952.

Several non-Native residents of Ootsa Lake were also called to the stage and presented with a gift of 40 acres of Ootsa Lake shoreline property from Cheslatta Carrier Nation, in the hopes that someday a recreation complex could be established.

Chief Peters said, “It is important that we gave some of this land back to the people of Ootsa Lake. They too suffered as a community when they were forced to relocate. This piece of land that we are returning to them, will hopefully become the heart of their community.”

There is no buildings or improvements on the land, which has largely been used for grazing and recreation since 1952 and Chief Peters said they have no immediate plans for the land.

“Today we get back what we lost 60 years ago. Land is the backbone of any community and this land is truly the foundation for our future,” he said.

Former Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief Corrina Leween said, “For many years we struggled to keep the land issue alive and on the table. The spirit of my ancestors and the sorrow and grief that they carried all of their lives, inspired us to never give up on their dream, to once again own our homelands outright. Today we shed tears of pride and joy.”

Jean Simon, president and chief executive officer, Primary Metal, Rio Tinto Alcan said, “This important event is the culmination of over 10 years of discussions between us and the community to return these traditional lands to the Cheslatta Carrier Nation. I am honoured to be the one, on behalf of our company, to bring this long standing issue to conclusion for the benefit of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation people.”