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"I take this as genocide"

September 30, 2004

"I take this as genocide"

Secwepemc battle BC government over land, Aboriginal Title

by Kim Petersen

sunpeaks.jpg
Secwepemc demonstrators and their supporters are erecting permanent structures on land they say remains unceded. photo: Tao.ca
"You may be able to use your police to grab and handcuff our elders, land-users and youth and haul them away. But you will not be able to keep them away from our land. They will return and all our people will return." These are the words of Chief Arthur Manuel of the Secwepemc, who have long been locked in a struggle over land rights with developers and the British Columbian government.

The province of British Columbia was settled and colonized without treaties with the indigenous inhabitants. Large areas of BC still remain unceded, and the indigenous populations claim sovereignty over these lands. One such area is in the southeastern part of British Columbia where a nation of 17 bands, the Secwepemc people, continues to struggle to recover their territory they call Skwelkwek'welt.

About 30 kilometres northeast of the BC interior city of Kamloops, on what used to be known as Tod Mountain, is Sun Peaks, a golf and ski resort built on Secwepemc territory. A $70 million development plan for Sun Peaks, submitted by the Japanese consortium Nippon Cable and investors Nancy Greene and Al Raine, was approved the BC government in 1997. This plan permits Sun Peaks to expand the resort from 4,000 to 20,000 beds and put ski runs on the nearby Mt. Morrisey. The Secwepemc rejected the development, and have since been engaged in an ongoing battle to win recognition from the provincial government and courts.

The Secwepemc have been opposing the development of their lands for more than a decade; 54 people have been arrested for protesting. Neskonlith Band Chief Arthur Manuel, who is among those already arrested and sentenced, commented that the "sentences are directly linked to the failure of the Canadian government's Aboriginal Title land policies". He decried the absence of "good-faith negotiations" related to Aboriginal title in BC as was mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada's Delgamuukw decision, which legally recognized the existence of Aboriginal Title in Canada.

The decision limited infringement on Aboriginal Title to cases where it was demonstrable that the infringement is for the good of society or resource regulation. Since the Supreme Court decision, First Nations have the right to legally challenge infringements. Upon such legal challenge the government must meet a "justification test" to demonstrate that its legislation is valid. Any infringement as per the Delgamuukw decision must accommodate the interests of the affected First Nation. Following the Constitution Act of 1982, only the federal government has authority over Aboriginal title.

The Secwepemc have not yet launched a title claim, a requirement of Delgamuukw; therefore, Sun Peaks has not been subject to a "justification process." The government of BC has nonetheless proceeded without a legal determination of the legitimacy of Aboriginal title in the case of the Secwepemc.

Manuel admonished the BC government for its failure to negotiate on the expansion of Sun Peaks Resort based on the applicability of the Haida Tree-Farm License case, a unanimous BC Court of Appeals decision that determined that the province and corporate logging giant Weyerhaeuser must accommodate Haida Title rights, and Haida cultural and economic interests.

On 29 August a convergence organized by a group of local First Nations people, the Council of Canadians, and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs attracted nearly 200 people in support of the Secwepemc people in their struggle. One placard summed up the struggle succinctly: "no justice on stolen land."

Neskonlith First Nation organizer Janice Billy identified the issues: "It's the continuing destruction of the land, the ongoing expansion project that we're opposed to, and the non-recognition of our title to the land in this area." In this spirit, the Skwelkwek'welt Protection Center has resorted to erecting tents on the resort, blockades, and protests. Journalists Harsha Walia and Stefan Christoff commented, "these are not just protests for the sake of protesting."

From a camp on the planned 16th fairway of a golf course, Billy revealed Secwepemc plans for the site: "it's going to be a center for youth and elders to come together and teach cultural activities like hunting and trapping and preserving meat. You can't teach those things down on the reserve."

I have known genocide ever since I was six-and-a-half years old..."
Sun Peaks tourism director Chris Nicholson sides with the resort. "It's got a legal right to exist, and everything that happened was approved in the early 90s by the provincial government."

Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Kevin Krueger defended the resort, threatening the protestors with trespass charges: "If they do not respond by vacating the property I expect they will be arrested and charged. If they put themselves through this course they'll end up with criminal records."

"Sun Peaks is a major generator of jobs locally and is fully supported by people of Kamloops, and that includes First Nations groups who have a number of very successful ventures with the resort," said Krueger.

In reply, Secwepemc leaders maintain that the Provincial government's decisions are illegitimate, and have not taken into account the legal rights granted by Aboriginal Title.

To make room for fairways and ski trails, trees are being cut. Skwelkwek'welt is a thriving ecosystem for deer, moose, bears, beavers, lynx, bobcat, cougars, to wolverines and a variety of plants, many essential to the Secwepemc as sources of food and medicine. The resort will also place enormous water and energy demands on the local ecosystem, while threatening intensified pollution. The BC government has brushed aside Secwepemc concerns on the environment and culture though recognized by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

The resort also allegedly destroyed Secwepemc sweatlodges and a cordwood home. The Secwepemc and their supporters continue to erect permanent structures to back their claim to Title.

The Secwepemc Nation have been served with a notice of trespass and a court injunction (sought by Sun Peaks) and face forcible removal from their territory in the coming week.

In support of the Secwepemc Nation, a group in Montreal has initiated an economic boycott of Skican Limited, the only distributor of travel packages to Sun Peaks Ski Resort, and has organized a phone-in to Skican on September 30 from 9am to 5pm.

Secwepemc elder Irene Billy spoke out against the long-running occupation of Skwelkwek'welt at the convergence:

"I have known genocide ever since I was six-and-a-half years old... My language was taken away from me; my culture was taken away from me. When we said no expansion, no development. I take this as genocide... I don't accept any more genocide."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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