Fact Sheet: The Nisga'a Treaty

A milestone in history

The Nisga'a Treaty is a negotiated agreement between the Nisga'a Nation, the Government of British Columbia (B.C.) and the Government of Canada. The last step needed to give legal effect to the Treaty took place on April 13, 2000, when Parliament passed the Nisga'a Final Agreement Act.

The Nisga'a Treaty is the first modern-day treaty in B.C. and is the fourteenth modern treaty in Canada to be negotiated since 1976.

About the Nisga'a people

The Nisga'a live in a fairly remote area of northwestern B.C. Approximately 2500 of the 5500 Nisga'a live in the Nass Valley, which they share with about 100 non-Aboriginal residents. Forestry is the dominant economic activity in the Nass Valley, but fishing, eco-tourism, pine mushroom harvesting and service industries are also important.

The Nisga'a social structure is based on kinship, organized in four clans: Killer Whale, Raven, Wolf and Eagle. Each clan contains a number of lineages, headed by hereditary chiefs and matriarchs. These roles remain important elements of Nisga'a culture today. The Nisga'a also make use of modern institutions, including a Health Board, School District and the Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl post-secondary organization.

How it all started

The Nisga'a quest for a treaty began over 100 years ago, with the formation of their first Land Committee in 1890. However, from 1927 to 1951, the Nisga'a could not pursue their goal for a treaty because Canadian laws made it illegal for Indians to raise money to advance land claims. After these laws were repealed in 1951 the Nisga'a Land Committee re-established itself as the Nisga'a Tribal Council in 1955.

In the late 1960's, the Tribal Council began a legal action in the B.C. Supreme Court. However, it was not until 1973 that the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a decision which prompted the overhaul of Canada's land claims negotiation policy. The federal government began treaty negotiations with the Nisga'a in 1976 and the B.C. government joined the two parties at the table in 1990.

Nisga'a Government

The Nisga'a Treaty provides for an open, democratic and accountable Nisga'a Government. It includes representation for all Nisga'a through the Nisga'a Lisims Government, four Village Governments, and three urban locals which provide a voice for Nisga'a citizens who do not live in the Nass Valley.

The Nisga'a Government operates within the Constitution of Canada and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Nisga'a Treaty establishes decision-making authority for the Nisga'a Lisims Government within a model that the Nisga'a have been accustomed to and have accepted for many years. The Nisga'a Government model is designed as a practical and workable arrangement that provides the Nisga'a with a significant measure of self-government that is consistent with the overall public interest and within Canada's constitutional framework.

The Nisga'a Lisims Government may make laws in many areas and has principal authority over some, including administration of its own government, management of its lands and assets, Nisga'a citizenship, language and culture. However, the treaty includes important limitations on Nisga'a authority. For example, the Nisga'a cannot make valid laws about Nisga'a citizenship that deal with immigration or Canadian citizenship.

All Nisga'a Government laws operate alongside federal and provincial laws, similar to other jurisdictions in Canada where Canadians are subject to federal, provincial and municipal laws simultaneously. The Treaty includes important rules which set out what will happen to address any conflicts between the laws that may arise.

In addition, many Nisga'a Government authorities are contingent on federal or provincial standards, where a "meet or beat" approach is taken. This approach is taken in a number of areas, including education, child and family services, adoption, and forestry. Child welfare is a good example of how this works. Nisga'a laws have priority if they meet or exceed provincial standards for child protection - but federal and provincial laws requiring the reporting of children in care continue to apply. The provincial government can continue to act as needed to protect a child at risk within the agreement between the Nisga'a and B.C.

The Nisga'a Government may also make laws in areas where some local authority is appropriate, such as environmental protection, health and social services, and traffic and transportation. However, in these areas, federal or provincial laws have priority.

Did you know?

1. Subject to age, all Nisga'a citizens may run for office and vote in Nisga'a elections;

2. Nisga'a elections must be held every five years;

3. Nisga'a Conflict of interest guidelines and financial accountability mechanisms must be comparable to those that apply to other governments in Canada;

4. Protections to ensure standards in services, health and safety have been built into the Treaty; and,

5. Protections for non-Nisga'a residents who live on Nisga'a Lands are set out in the Treaty - this includes rights of consultation, participation and appeal where decisions of the Nisga'a Government directly and significantly affect them.

The Nisga'a Treaty and The Constitution

The Nisga'a Treaty is consistent with Canada's supreme law, The Constitution Act, 1982.

Beginning in the early 1970s, successive court cases confirmed that Aboriginal rights and title are legal rights and that they existed whether governments recognized them or not. In 1982, The Constitution Act was changed to recognize and affirm existing Aboriginal rights. This change did not create or define Aboriginal rights, rather, it "recognized and affirmed" existing Aboriginal rights and treaty rights.

It is important to understand that Aboriginal rights and treaty rights are different. Aboriginal rights are not clearly defined, and must be established through the courts on a case-by-case basis. Treaty rights are negotiated B and in modern treaties rights can be exhaustively set out and described in detail.

As a modern treaty, the Nisga'a Treaty sets out and describes in detail how the rights of Nisga'a citizens will be exercised. Any Aboriginal rights of the Nisga'a are modified to become rights set out in the Treaty. In this way, the negotiating parties have agreed to rights - rather than extinguishing them.

Key Features of the Agreement

The Nisga'a Treaty sets out the land and resources that form part of the agreement between Canada, B.C. and the Nisga'a Nation. The Treaty sets out the Nisga'a's right to self-government, and the authority to manage lands and resources. Together, the Treaty and related agreements provide the Nisga'a with:

  • $196.1 million dollars (in 1999 dollars);
  • 2,019 square kilometers of land;
  • an average yearly allocation of 44,588 sockeye salmon, 11,797 coho salmon, 6,330 chum salmon, 6,524 chinook salmon, and 4,430 pink salmon, protected by the Treaty;
  • a commercial yearly allocation averaging 28, 913 sockeye and 88,526 pink salmon under an agreement which is not part of the Treaty;
  • limited allocations of moose, grizzly bear and goats, for domestic purposes;
  • $11.8 million to increase participation in the general commercial fishery;
  • $10.3 million in Canada's contribution to the Lisims Fisheries Conservation Trust (to which the Nisga'a provide $3.1 million);
  • transition, training and one-time funding of $40.6 million;
  • a water reservation for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes;
  • authority to operate their own government, and the ability to make certain laws; and,
  • funding to help deliver health, education, and social services to their members and other area residents.

Prior to the Treaty, the Nisga'a Villages delivered health, education, social and other services through a variety of federal and provincial programs. These programs will now be delivered through the Nisga'a Lisims Government under a Fiscal Financing Agreement, which is not part of the Treaty. The first Fiscal Financing Agreement provides funding of $32.7 million per year (1999 dollars).

It is important to recognize that the Nisga'a Government will also contribute to the costs of these programs and services, thereby reducing federal and provincial transfers over time. The Nisga'a Government will help to finance programs and services in two ways:

  • through payment of income and sales taxes; and,

  • by contributing a share of its revenues.

Discussion and input to the Treaty

The Nisga'a Treaty underwent extensive debate in the B.C. Legislature and in Canada's House of Commons and Senate. The Treaty includes provisions that reflect how governments addressed the concerns of the public and third parties which were brought to the attention of negotiators. Nearly 500 public information and third-party consultation meetings were conducted during the negotiations.

Want to know more?

More information on the Nisga'a Treaty is available in the Nisga'a Final Agreement Act Issue Papers or by referring to the Treaty itself. The Nisga'a Annual Report is also available on the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada website. For more information or to arrange for a guest speaker, contact:

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada,
600-1138 Melville Street,
Vancouver B.C. V6E 4S3
Telephone: (604) 775-7114
Toll Free: 1-800-665-9320
Fax: (604) 775-7149
Email : bcinfo@inac.gc.ca