NORTH VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The Haida Nation is going to court to lay an unprecedented claim to the land and surrounding waters of the Queen Charlotte Islands, an area that includes billions of dollars in oil and gas reserves.
Louise Mandell, the band's lawyer, said she believes it's the first time an aboriginal band has laid title to surrounding waters and offshore resources.
"There's very little judicial determination of the seabed as an aspect of aboriginal title," she said Wednesday before going to British Columbia Supreme Court to file the writ.
The claim includes the Hecate Strait. The strait between British Columbia's northern mainland near Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands is believed to contain an estimated 9.8 billion barrels of oil and 25.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Harvesting the reserves could be worth up to $2.5 billion (U.S.) a year to the provincial government.
Guujaw, president of the 7,000-member Haida Nation, said the claim is about protecting the environment, not about oil and gas revenues.
"This case is about respect for the Earth and each other. It is about culture and it is about life," said Guujaw, who goes by his Haida name.
"We don't believe offshore oil and gas can be safely obtained the technology doesn't exist and we are not prepared to see offshore oil and gas drilling in any waters within a 200-mile limit surrounding Haida Gwaii."
The Canadian government imposed a moratorium on offshore oil and gas activity in 1972, and the provincial government imposed its own ban in 1989. But the B.C. Liberal party has commissioned environmental and scientific studies to determine whether oil and gas drilling can be done without harming the environment.
The Liberals also have been consulting with Ottawa on the issue.
The Haida's latest claim follows its victory last week at the B.C. Court of Appeal. Three judges agreed the Haida should have been consulted by the province and forestry company Weyerhaeuser Canada about logging activities on land claimed by the Haida.
Attorney General Geoff Plant said Wednesday the courts have been clear that the province continues to be the landlord.
"We need to work hard to ensure that we accommodate aboriginal rights and title and other aboriginal interests," Plant said.
"I think that offshore oil and gas in the long run, if it can be done in a way that's environmentally safe, could offer huge opportunities, economically, for First Nations up and down the coast of British Columbia."