B.C. native bands take to the barricades to push their cause
B.C. native bands take to the barricades to push their cause
When Carole Cowan and her husband, Sonny, retired in 1993, she believed they had found “a little piece of heaven.” Investing nearly $250,000 of their savings, the couple turned their backs on a lifetime of hard work in the forest industry to build a comfortable new home with a view of unspoiled Adams Lake, 60 km east of Kamloops in the British Columbia interior. Two years later, Carole bitterly calls their Eden “a little piece of hell.” What has spoiled the Cowans’ retirement paradise is an escalating dispute between area residents and local natives that flared into open confrontation on July 15, when members of the Adams Lake Indian band closed the only road to more than a dozen year-round and seasonal homes on the lake, including the Cowans’. For Carole, however, the most terrifying moment came two nights later. Waking up about 3 a.m. on July
17, she says she heard the sound of native drums beating nearby in the summer darkness. “I thought,” she says, “that they were there to burn us out.”
That fear was clearly unjustified. But in nearly a dozen communities across British Columbia this summer, blockaded roads, angry confrontations between natives and non-natives and hairtrigger tempers have become alarmingly familiar. As the number of disputes between native bands, government officials and local residents grows, the perception is also building that a historic attempt to write the first-ever treaties between non-natives and most of the province’s 90,000 aboriginals is running off the rails. Contributing to that perception is an invective-laden breakdown in relations between officials of the federal department of Indian affairs and the B.C. ministry of aboriginal affairs. On July 14, in fact, bad blood between the two ministries brought one set of treaty talks, involving the Nisga’a people of the province’s northwest, to a standstill, even though most issues had been resolved.
Amid the general souring of moods, however, polls indicate that most British Columbians continued to support settling native land claims. Those claims have gone unresolved in most of the province, where the government
has never signed treaties with native Indian bands to compensate them for the surrender of traditional territories. In surveys conducted every three months since 1989, Vancouver polling firm MarkTrend Research has found that public support for treaties putting an end to that historic anomaly has never gone below 80 per cent. Still, says senior MarkTrend researcher Julie Winram, nearly half the British Columbians surveyed suspect their government will give up too much to natives in reaching settlements.
Certainly, exasperation at government was plentiful at Adams Lake last week. The long, narrow pristine lake is the site of one of British Columbia’s most famous salmon runs, which draws thousands of onlookers each October. It became popular among summer cottagers and a growing number of yearround residents more than a decade ago after the province built an access road up its east-
era shore. For more than a kilometre at its outset at the south end of the lake, the road crosses one of seven reserves belonging to the Adams Lake Hustalen First Nation. For reasons that are in dispute, however, the province never acquired legal title to the road right-of-way, which remains in Indian hands. Last October, the natives signalled a rising militancy by erecting a “No trespassing” sign at the road’s south end.
Friction increased in March when the owners of a lakeshore resort located on reserve land leased from the Adams Lake band sought to develop a recreational-vehicle park on a privately owned parcel of land further up the lake. Claiming that the land in question was a traditional burial site, the band erected a checkpoint on a bridge at the lake’s south end and began stopping vehicles carrying building materials. Then, on July 15, after another resident transported materials for a new garage across the lake by barge in order to avoid the checkpoint, the natives removed a bridge-like cattleguard from the road just inside the reserve’s northern limit, effectively cutting off further access. Noting that the private road is the property of the Adams Lake band, a provincial court subsequently ruled the native action legal. In response, three days
after the natives removed the cattleguard, the provincial ministry of transport brought in a small tugboat and a barge to serve as a crude ferry service for stranded residents.
Still, many affected residents clearly blame the impasse more on federal and provincial officials than on the Adams Lake Indians. “They are frustrated,” said cottager Bill Higginbottom of the natives from whom he has leased his summer vacation property for 20 years. “This is the only way they know to get anything done.” Agreeing vigorously with the Cowans, during a conversation carried on over the rail of the makeshift provincial ferry, Higginbottom accused federal and provincial officials of simply “passing the buck back and forth to each other.”
The disruption to traffic at Adams Lake is only one of this summer’s many flash points in British Columbia. For a month earlier this spring, members of the Upper Nicola Indian band mounted illegal blockades at three points on roads leading through the 165,000acre Douglas Ranch, west of Kelowna, to protest against the arrest of six natives for netting trout stocked in one of the ranch’s several private lakes. Those blockades came down on June 7, after the province agreed to negotiate aboriginal fishing rights. No
charges were laid against the natives.
Later that month, several shots were fired in the vicinity of a native encampment on a privately owned ranch near Dog Creek, about 180 km northwest of Kamloops. Dismissing attempts by native members of the RCMP to defuse that confrontation, militant members of the self-styled “Defenders of the Shuswap Nation Sundance Grounds,” in a statement sent to the media, castigated the officers involved as “cannon fodder, funded by illegitimate settler colonial regimes to enforce apartheid-type control over native people.” The reason for the growing popularity of confrontation among militant natives is simple. “Blockades work,” observes Shuswap Indian leader Ken Dennis. “And because they work, more people will use them.”
That view gets no quarrel from the top federal Indian Affairs official in British Columbia. “It is very hard to argue with him,” acknowl-
edged John Watson, the department’s regional director general. But Watson accepts none of the blame for the surge in confrontational tactics, reserving that for his provincial counterparts. “What the province is doing, in responding in the manner they have, is creating an expectation that blockades will work,” says Watson, adding: “It is a recipe for a feeding frenzy of blockades.” Watson’s assertion, though, provoked a furious denial from provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Cashore. “It is all very well for him to speak from a perch that he never comes down from
because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty,” Cashore said with marked asperity. “I challenge him to go among the residents of Adams Lake and make that statement.”
In Cashore’s view, the province has acted responsibly in trying to resolve “legitimate” native grievances in the disputes to date. By contrast, he said Ottawa had forced natives to resort to militant tactics by refusing to tackle their concerns. He also accused Watson and federal Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin of “abandoning” B.C. taxpayers to the disruptive effects of native protests.
Certainly, many residents of Adams Lake, both native and non-native alike, appear to agree that the federal government is not living up to its responsibilities. For his part, Adams Lake native councillor Nelson Leon conceded last week that his band’s concerns are not restricted to the site of the proposed recreational vehicle park. In fact, Leon asserted that all of the land surrounding the lake, including private property owned by the Cowans and others, is spiritually significant to the band and should be under its control. And he accused federal negotiators of walking away from talks aimed at settling the band’s claim. As to the closed road, Nelson insisted: “It is not a blockade. It’s a checkpoint”
Perhaps. But when a Maclean’s reporter and photographer approached the three tattered olivegreen vinyl kitchen chairs that stood empty under a white awning at the “checkpoint’ last week, they were denied permission to continue on to visit a non-native-owned resort further down the road. Instead, a grinning youth in a grey tank top and black San Francisco 49ers ball cap, driving a grey and maroon Ford four-by-four pickup truck, brusquely ordered them back the way they had come. If they failed to comply, he added, “I got a right to confiscate your vehicle.” Meanwhile, fear has become a constant companion for Sonny and Carole Cowan. On the evening after Carole was wakened by the drums, an unidentified native armed with a rifle pointed the weapon at the head of the couple’s son, Gordon, an off-duty RCMP constable who was visiting his parents on holiday. When the younger Cowan attempted to arrest the rifle-wielding native, an RCMP spokesman confirmed last week, another armed Indian approached and helped the first man to escape. For Carole, the violation of her hoped-for peaceful retirement already has been enough to shake lifelong feelings of acceptance towards native people. “I never used to be prejudiced,” she says with sadness. “I am afraid I am now.” Far more than any temporary inconveniences, that legacy of ill will may be the most lasting tragedy of British Columbia’s summer of blockades.
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