Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Indigenous protests gain momentum on the ground and recognition in court

First Nations across Northern BC say so-called blockades are just the signs of generations of struggle and tradition finally being recognized.

Erin Flegg

Vancouver Observer

Ten days after the Sekw’el’was First Nation filed an appeal with the provincial environmental appeal board, a new water intake project on the Seton River near Lillooet that would threaten salmon habitat on the nation’s traditional territory has been stayed.

The same day hereditary chief Michelle Edwards filed the appeal, she and other members of the Cayoose Creek band stopped work on the site for several hours in the morning and continued to protest until Monday.

The T’it’q’et First Nation across the creek has also filed an appeal on the same project.

“For now we have a small victory in that they will not do any work on the water intake until both appeals are heard,” Edwards said in a phone interview from the protest site.

Lillooet mayor Dennis Bontron released a statement announcing the district will hold off construction on the intake until the result from the appeal board, but his office plans to fight against it. He also said construction will go ahead on the rest of the site and warns that any protestors who attempt to interfere will be found trespassing. Work on surrounding sites has been ongoing since last year and has to do with the existing water treatment facility treatment rather than a new intake, and Edwards said she has no plans to stop it, adding that it has been important to her to keep conflict to a minimum and open lines of communication while still getting the message across.

“I didn’t want them to have to slap an injunction on me because it would have weakened my appeal."

The Cayoose Creek band in Lillooet is fulfilling the predictions made by indigenous leaders immediately following the National Energy Board’s approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline by fighting for their territory both on the land and in the courts. And in spite of warnings from the federal government that it will crack down on protestors who stand in the way of energy development, people are taking to their land

After Idle No More declared the summer of 2013 the Summer of Sovereignty and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip dubbed indigenous resistance the Thin Red Line, it has becoming increasingly apparent that BC's First Nations are answering the call to direct action.

But some say that the recent spate of what media calls blockades--in Lillooet, Fort Nelson and the Slocan Valley--is really just an increase in recognition of what the people on those lands have been doing for millennia.

At the tail end of last year, the Behn family of the Fort Nelson First Nation in northern BC won a court case wherein a logging company attempted to sue the nation and the BC government over a blockade preventing the company from logging the Behns’ traditional territory.

But Richard Behn, who along with his father George initiated the camp in question, says it’s no win for him. When it comes down to, he says, it was no blockade either.

“We just set up a traditional camp in a tradition camping site, and it just happened to be where they put the road,” he said.

The Behns’ traditional territory has been steadily dwindling since the building of the Alaska Highway and the advent of oil and gas development in the 1960s and 1970s.

When it became apparent seven years ago that the last patch of land available to run trap lines and teach the arts and crafts of the harvest to new generations was under threat by logging, Richard and his father George determined to do something about it: the same thing they had been doing for thousands of years.

“Our family has occupied that land from time immemorial,” Behn said. “Going our to a camp, particularly in different seasons of the year, that wasn’t a noteworthy event. That was something we did on an annual basis, a seasonal basis.”

The family saw their actions as standing up for their their culture simply by continuing to practice it the way they always did. The word blockade never came up.

“Those politicians and those that drive the judiciary have to use that kind of inflammatory language to win the day. The fact that our people have been doing it seasonally for thousands of years means absolutely nothing.”

The campsite isn’t permanent and never has been, because the nation is a nomadic one.

As a result of the camp, the logging company Moulton Contracting Ltd couldn’t log the area. Its equipment was repossessed and its licence expired. The courts found the BC government should have warned the company, and ordered the government to pay out $1.75 million in damages. The government has filed a notice of appeal.

Behn said the time in court would have been much better spent discussing the ongoing lack of meaningful consultation between the government, corporations and First Nations. But the issue really comes down to one crucial point: the government’s attitude toward aboriginal people.

“As far as they’re concerned aboriginal people don’t exist, and if they do, they shouldn’t.”

This is a situation all too familiar to the people of the Sinixt Nation in the Slocan Valley. Almost 60 years ago, the federal government declared them extinct.

The Sinixt were considered the mother tribe of the region, often settling disputes between neighbouring tribes. But the tribe was hit particularly hard during the Great Dying of the 17th century, a period during which outbreaks of disease brought over by European settlers killed thousands of indigenous people. Some fled south to Washington, living on the Colville Indian Reservation and eventually got caught under the government-sanctioned Colville Confederated Tribe. When the woman the Canadian government had deemed the last of the Sinixt died, the nation ceased to be recognized under the Indian Act.

Like the Behns’ camp, the blockade on Mount Sentinel, announced last week, is just the next step in another perpetual battle for rights and title and to demand recognition under both Canadian and international indigenous right laws, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Because they’re unrecognized, British Columbia Timber Sales, the body that grants timber sales licences, didn’t consult with the Sinixt before granting developer Stephen Spooner licence to log the Mount Sentinel area to build a backcountry tourism lodge. The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources said in an email that BCTS had the legal right to grant the timbre licence, and asked that protesters respect that legal right.

“There are a lot of cultural and archeological sites around that mountain,” Sinixt spokesperson Dennis Zorelli said. “We’re pushing for the right to consultation so we can continued to do the cultural work we do and preserver what left of Sinixt culture, what’s left on the land.”

Also due to of their lack of official status, the nation has technically been blockading their traditional territory for more than 20 years.

“We have the longest running peaceful occupation of federal government-owned land. Since 1990 our people have been living on the land and children are being born here regardless of the government trying to keep us out.”

While blockades and occupation camps are nothing new, they are likely to proliferate as long as the federal government continues to hand over traditional First Nations territory.

“They will keep seeing people show up and put the pressure on because that’s part of the cultural way. You have to protect your cultural burial grounds. You have to stand up for your ancestors,” Zorelli said. “To continue to be Sinixt you have to keep doing those things, treating everything with integrity.”

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