Written by Jennifer Dysart
As an hour-long special made for TV in 1997 (and reedited in 2005), Whose Land is This? uncovers the unique situation of contemporary land claims in British Columbia. Most of Canada’s land mass was divided up in treaties signed by the European newcomers and the Aboriginal peoples in the late 1800s and early 1900s that fundamentally acknowledged but diminished Aboriginal people’s rights to the land. However, this documentary effectively uncovers why land claims in B.C. are a current-day hot topic despite that bit of Canadian history: it is a little-known (but much studied) fact that unlike the other provinces, B.C. failed to deal with the legal issue of Aboriginal land title prior to joining confederation of Canada in 1871. Except for a few treaties that covered small parcels of land on Vancouver Island issued by Hudson’s Bay Company representative Sir James Douglas, B.C. did not make formal agreements that identified who has rights to what in B.C., which sets the stage for the high tensions that surround the issue more than a century later.
The filmmaker, Richard Hersley, interviews a wide range of people, including elders, academics who have studied the Aboriginal and provincial history and politics, and Aboriginal leaders who were integral to the long battle to have the issue revisited in Nation to Nation negotiations and/or litigation. What the experts agree is that indeed there is a strong case for land claims that will redesign the borders of the province.
As an educational special made for TV, this documentary takes a journalistic approach with its unidentified narrator, abundance of archival photos, and oral recounts of written and oral history. The research is impeccable, and the film excels at peeling away the layers of governmental jargon, media anxiety, and general misunderstanding that has plagued the land-claims issue for decades. Yet, with a re-edit completed in 2005, Hersley might have explored what developments (or lack of them) have surfaced in the eight years since the documentary was first shot.
Through the on-the-street-interviews with strangers of various ethnicities in Vancouver, B.C., filmmaker Richard Hersley gently teases out the discomfort and lack of awareness that non-indigenous Canadians have of the history of First Nations land claims and juxtaposes them with voices of the younger Aboriginal population. Their politically and culturally strong opinions about the meaning of land ownership in B.C. exemplifies that the question Whose Land is This? is worth asking, regardless of the decade in which it is asked.
The DVD can be ordered through the First Nations Films website.