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Terra nullius

Welcome to the Vancouver Lexicon. Its purpose is to pin down the patois of the City of Vancouver by recording its toponyms, nicknames, slang terms, personalities, places, and other Van-centric things. Full A-Z here.

Terra nullius | colonialism | Literally “Nobody’s Land” in Latin. A farcical legal concept of the Colonial Era that gave cover to European powers as they claimed, sold and leased lands that were never ceded to them. Here in BC (and the rest of Canada) it allowed for the Crown’s assumptions of sovereignty over Indigenous lands. The concept is similar to the Roman Catholic Church’s 15th century Doctrine of Discovery and the ‘finders keepers’ excuse of thieves.

Usage: “Despite its fancy Latin name, the doctrine of Terra nullius was of a calibre of argument typically employed by kindergarten bullies.”

There are 2 comments

  1. I love you Scout, but this one missed the mark.

    There are centuries of really awful history between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. But terra nullius never applied in Canada. From the 1763 Royal Proclamation to the 2014 Supreme Court Tsilhqot’in decision – never happened.

  2. Thanks for the love, Chris. What I’m referring to isn’t specific court cases but rather one of the guiding principles or doctrines of an Empire looking to excuse itself mid-crime, even if only morally. To wit:

    “Here in BC (and the rest of Canada) it allowed for the Crown’s assumptions of sovereignty over Indigenous lands.”

    They did the same in Africa, too. Trutch is a good example, as argued via Dr. Bruce Granville Miller (Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia).

    The repressive Joseph Trutch, whose infamous name is unfortunately remembered in a Vancouver street, became chief commissioner of lands and works in 1864, and set out to reverse Douglas’ work. He succeeded in a 92% reduction of the reserves mapped out by McColl under Douglas’s direction. He believed the Indians have really no rights to the lands they claim, nor are they of any actual value or utility to them; and I cannot see why they should retain these lands to the prejudice of the general interests of the Colony, or be allowed to make a market of them either to Government or to individuals.

    BC entered confederation in 1871 and Trutch as lieutenant-governor defended his policies. Although the federal government assumed responsibility for Indians and Indian reserves, the province controlled all other land and acted to limit the size and location of future reserves. Trutch was pivotal to the dilemma the region is in now. He was the first official to claim that FN never owned the land and he created the myth that Indians were bribed to give up their claims to the land, but not the land itself. Although Douglas had earlier referred to the region as “wild and unoccupied” when proclaiming at Ft Langley the creation of the government of BC in 1858, it was Trutch’s version of terra nullius led to the disappearance of Indian title from the larger debate, although not from the minds of the FN. Further, Trutch amended the pre-emption ordinance to exclude Indians and resurveyed every reserve in order to reduce them in the “public interest.” In effect, Trutch insured that BC policy at the time of the province’s entry into Confederation was not in conformity with the Proclamation of 1763.

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