"Hang Onto These Words": Johnny David's Delgamuukw Evidence


486 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8534-2
DDC 346.71104'32'089972




Reviewed by David Mardiros

David Mardiros is a lawyer and anthropological consultant in Terrace,
British Columbia.


The case of Delgamuukw v. The Queen was the longest-running civil case
in British Columbia history. In 1991, after hearing some 374 days of
evidence over three and a half years, Chief Justice Allan McEachern of
the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against the Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en in
their claim over their ancestral lands in northwestern British Columbia.
Although much of Chief Justice McEachern’s ruling was later overturned
by the Supreme Court of Canada, the trial judgment remains a sore point
in the history of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal
peoples in the province.

Much has been written about Delgamuukw in the nearly 20 years that have
passed since the trial began, but public access to the actual evidence
(stretching to more than 2,600 transcript pages) has been very limited
because it has been published only in extract. This book is the first to
present the unedited transcript of the evidence of one of the key
plaintiffs, Johnny David, a Witsuwit’en hereditary chief. Not only is
his evidence remarkable in its own right, describing as it does the
complex set of interrelationships the Witsuwit’en have with each
other, their neighbours, and their environment, it provides the reader
with a rich history of the region and includes a number of early
photographs of the region introduced into evidence.

The book is also a remarkable record of how difficult it is to
communicate many of the concepts and principles of kinship and
traditional land ownership, rights, and responsibilities. It amply
demonstrates, as well, how the formalities of the taking of commissioned
evidence are a formidable impediment to communication and understanding.
The many recorded comments of the lawyers in the
transcripts—objections, clarifications, and just plain sniping—are a
testament to the unsatisfactory nature of the process.

While the main body of this work will appeal mainly to readers with a
specific interest in Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en culture and history, the
volume contains a remarkable 66-page introduction by Antonia Mills that
provides the context to the Delagumuukw case and describes its
importance. This makes the book of much greater value to a wider
audience. Mills is an associate professor in the First Nations Studies
Program at the University of Northern British Columbia.


Mills, Antonia., “"Hang Onto These Words": Johnny David's Delgamuukw Evidence,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30305.