VICTORIA - It's reassuring to know that local First Nations won't be hammering a big 'For Sale' sign into the lawn in front of the B.C. legislature.
The Songhees and Esquimalt bands filed a lawsuit in 2001 arguing that the big stone building sits on property that belongs to them.
And now the provincial and federal governments have agreed, promising $31.5 million to compensate the bands for their lost property. Instead of being sheepish or resentful, the politicians turned the deal into a Saturday morning celebration at the legislature. (Though they did choose to unveil the agreement while Premier Gordon Campbell was half-a-world away in China.)
When the two First Nations launched the legal action in 2001 it was mostly seen as part of the backlash over Campbell's divisive and pointless plan for a referendum on treaty principles.
But in fact they had a good claim.
By the time the Vancouver Island colony was set up in 1849 the British government had decided to recognize the principle of aboriginal ownership throughout the empire. It wanted local representatives to reach agreements showing clearly that natives had agreed to surrender land and been compensated.
So James Douglas, the colony's governor and the regional manager for the Hudson's Bay Company, set out to sign treaties. The deals offered the natives money to give up title to vast tracts of land and also set out areas they would continue to own.
In 1850 Douglas reached one of those deals with the predecessors of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations was one of those agreements. Under he agreement they were to continue to own their village sites, which included the nice piece of waterfront property across the harbour from Fort Victoria. The land was marked on colonial maps as a reserve. (The treaty push only lasted a few years. The British government didn't see enough pressure for development to justify acquiring more land.)
But when Douglas and colonial officials started looked for a site for a legislature in the late-1850s, the reserve caught their eyes. Part of the appeal was that the government wouldn't have to pay; it could just take the land.
And it did.
It's a familiar story. Even when treaties were reached with First Nations, governments and business were often quick to take bits needed for a new community or a highway - or a legislature. It was faster, easier and cheaper than buying property from non-natives. The practice continued at least through the 1940s in B.C.
But the courts have said a deal is a deal. If you take someone's property, you owe them compensation, even if they don't find out about the loss for a century.
All in all it's encouraging that the governments have accepted this claim and reached a settlement. That's a big change.
In 2001 Campbell and the Liberals were still arguing that the Nisga'a treaty should be declared invalid because it gave too much power to the First Nation.
They were planning a referendum to seek support for treaty principles that would have made agreements impossible.
Now five years later the referendum results have been tossed in the dustbin, the Liberals laud the benefits of the Nisga'a treaty and Campbell is championing a New Relationship with First Nations.
The federal government's shift is just as dramatic. It has routinely stalled and stonewalled similar cases for decades.
Partly, the Songhees and Esquimalt bands probably have the International Olympic Committee to thank for the settlement. The governments knew that in 2010 the world media would have jumped all over a story that showed B.C.'s legislature was built on land taken illegally from First Nations.
But the settlement likely also indicates that the provincial government is looking for ways to right old wrongs and remove barriers to the new relationship.
Clearing up the cloud over the province's legislature is another useful step.
Footnote: The ceremony came the day after Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong jumped into a dispute between local First Nations and a developer who wanted to destroy a cave they say is sacred. De Jong helped reach a two-week truce, saving the governments from some embarrassment on what was supposed to be a good-news day.