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Cheam People Shut Down Railway and Halt Logging

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Issue: 9 Section: Environment Geography: West Cheam Nation, Chilliwack Topics: social movements, Indigenous

October 20, 2003

Cheam People Shut Down Railway and Halt Logging

A saga of resistance

by Yuill Herbert


At about 4 pm on October 2nd two trucks pulled to a halt while straddling the railway tracks that bisect the Cheam Reserve. A small crowd, including members of the Cheam Nation and supporters from local communities, gathered around the trucks forming a human blockade against the trains. Earlier that day, elder and former Chief June Quipp had warned Canadian National Railways that trans-Canadian train travel would be halted, and that she was good on her word.

The blockade is the latest action in the Cheam's struggle for unceded territory that began with a protest fishery three years ago and continues today. This time, however, the blockade is about a new threat to the Cheam's land and way of life: the clearcutting of an old growth forest to make way for a ski development on their sacred mountains.

The Cheam Reserve is situated on the Fraser River close to Chilliwack, British Columbia. CN's mainline railway track bisects the Reserve, passing at some points within ten metres of houses. The ground shakes and conversations halt at least once an hour, as trains rumble past. The shrill whistle warns drivers at several crossings, one of which recently proved deadly for an elder with poor hearing. Many of the houses in the Reserve overlook the major employer, a garbage dump servicing the Chilliwack area.

Logging commenced several weeks ago in the Elk Creek Rainforest above the Reserve, the last old growth in the lower Fraser Valley. The sacred mountains are the site of a proposed Whistler-style mega development, to be operational for the 2010 Olympics. Resorts West, the developer, envisions twenty ski lifts on eight peaks, three resort villages, a golf course, retirement community, condos, and four hundred thousand annual visitors. A late elder's words convey the importance of the proposed site to the Cheam people: "the mountains are our leaders, the mountains are our idols, the mountains are our source of food, medicine and communication, a place for us to pray, and a place of teaching and learning."

Heidi Smith, a recent graduate from Ontario, has been living on the reserve for two months. "I have experienced every emotion in the past week. It makes me physically sick to see the lie I have been raised in. To me it seems so extreme, the police and the blockade, but to the people who live here it is nothing, it is what they live with."

Within four hours of the blockade's formation, thirty-two police officers had arrested seven people, breaking one person's arm and badly bruising a grandmother in the process. The blockade persisted until dark the next day, when a forty member tactical police team moved in with dogs, prison vans and a Supreme Court order to clear the tracks. A peaceful dispute resolution process resulted in the removal of the blockade in exchange for a meeting with the Minister of Forests the following day.

Elder June Quipp told the story of one young member of the band whom she had to convince to leave the train tracks after the blockade had ended. "It frightened me because probably both he and I would be killed if a train came. He had sacred items in the mountains and said that if the mountains are ruined, his spirit would be gone. He said that he may as well lie down and die. That is what a lot of people are thinking. I know I am."

Underlying the actions of the Cheam people is a deep conviction in their inherent right to traditional territories, stemming from use and possession of the land since time immemorial. Having never ceded their land, the Cheam demand a degree of consultation over their territory. According to elder June Quipp, that they are not heard is not for lack of trying. "We have tried negotiations, litigation and written notices, so far none of these tactics have worked. It does not matter what we say, governments, and big corporations go ahead and do what they want even if it means destroying someone else's life."

It is for this reason that the people of Cheam fall back on blockades: they are effective. The Minister of Forests, Mike de Jong, arrived the following day and listened to two hours of testimony from protesters, explaining why they believe the area should not be logged. He left the meeting without any conclusive plan but promised to take the issue to cabinet. Finding this vague commitment insufficient, a police negotiator secured a one-week grace period during which no logging would take place.

This lag in logging activity does not mean rest for the Cheam community however. The people of Cheam are planning to restrict access to others places of worship in the community, an action symbolic of the way in which their spiritual locations are treated.

As June Quip states. "so we are back to direct action. We have got a lot of sympathetic ears and supporters. We are really really busy."

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