Former Musqueam chief and aboriginal rights defender Delbert Guerin dies

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A former chief of the Musqueam Indian Band is being remembered as a tireless defender of First Nations' rights.

Delbert Victor Guerin Sr., who gave his name to a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling on aboriginal rights, died at 75 on May 11.

“It is a sad time for our community as we mourn the loss of a great leader for the Musqueam Nation and a true warrior for all First Nation people,” Musqueam chief Wayne Sparrow said in a news release issued today (May 14). “Delbert dedicated much of his life to making sure our rights were acknowledged, and we owe it to him and our future generations to keep this vision alive.”

Guerin was involved with the National Indian Brotherhood (predecessor to the Assembly of First Nations), Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Native Brotherhood of B.C., and Alliance Tribal Council (now the Naut’sa mawt Tribal Council).

"People all across our Country will honour and recognize Guerin’s valued work and commitment in defending Aboriginal Rights and Title," the release states. "Most notably Guerin went to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Guerin vs. Regina Case, with the support of the Musqueam Community, he spearheaded the first ever successful case against the crown of England, for breach of fiduciary obligation."

Delbert Guerin shares some memories in this interview.

According to UBC's Indigenous Foundations website, the 1984 R. v. Guerin ruling established that the Canadian government has an obligation to act in the best interest of First Nations, particularly when it comes to reserve land. The site summarizes the case:

In 1956, Musqueam held just over 400 acres of reserve land overlooking the Fraser River in Vancouver’s prestigious Southlands neighbourhood. At that time, the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club was looking for land for its golf course. The Club approached the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in the hopes of leasing 162 prime acres of the Musqueam reserve. The DIA obtained Musqueam's consent by assuring them that the band would receive revenue from the lease. According to Musqueam, the band was denied legal representation. They consented to the deal regardless. After the DIA obtained their consent, DIA representatives re-negotiated the deal with the Club and leased the land on substantially different terms than what Musqueam had agreed to.

Musqueam had been told that they would profit off of the 75-year lease, with rents being adjusted to fair market rates every decade. Unbeknownst to the band, however, the deal was re-negotiated to allow the Club to only pay what amounted to 10% of the fair market rent for the land.

These changes to the lease were kept secret from the Musqueam for 12 years, until an employee at the DIA revealed them to then-chief Delbert Guerin. It took five years before Musqueam was able to find a lawyer who would take on the case, as there was little to no legal or governmental acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights and title at that time. The case was filed in 1975 and went through three levels of court before the federal court ruled in Musqueam's favour and awarded $10 million in compensation to the band. The government, however, appealed this ruling and the compensation was repealed. Musqueam in turn appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Musqueam's favour and re-instated the award. The Court ruled that the Crown had neglected its fiduciary duty to the Musqueam in its handling of the deal with the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club. This ruling not only affirmed Musqueam's rights, but also set a precedent in the recognition of Aboriginal rights in Canada.

A prayer service will be held on Thursday (May 15) at 7 p.m., and the funeral will take place on Friday (May 16) at 10 a.m. Both events will be hosted at the Musqueam Community Centre (6777 Salish Drive).

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