The planned expansion of the Sun Peaks ski resort near Kamloops, B.C. has brought Secwepemc (Shuswap) protesters into conflict with local residents and law enforcement authorities.
A similar protest in Melvin Creek (near Lillooet, B.C.) saw the RCMP arrest one non-Native and six Native protesters when police broke up a roadblock on Highway 99 on July 4.
With a new, conservative provincial government settling into office and a toughening of police response to political demonstrations apparent, the situation is similar to events that led to the death of Native protester Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995.
George was shot to death by an Ontario Provincial Police tactical team member. Then, Ontario Premier Mike Harris had just been elected and appeared to be trying to send a message to First Nations that his government would be tough on protesters. Now, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell is barely into his second month on the job and a similar pattern is emerging.
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs president Chief Stewart Phillip has spent time at the Sun Peaks camp. His organization supports the protest. He sees the similarities to the Ipperwash situation. He said he will raise the issue with the premier in the near future.
"There's no question," he said during a July 10 phone interview. "I'm here in Kamloops at an Interior Alliance meeting and a great deal of the agenda was allocated to the Sun Peaks/Melvin Creek situation. We're greatly concerned by the show of force that was demonstrated by the RCMP to arrest six people at the Melvin Creek campsite a week or so ago. They employed two emergency response teams or SWAT teams, three dog teams and I understand there was 31 vehicles in their convoy. It was nothing short of a para-military operation. I'm also convinced that the force that went into Melvin Creek is a rapid response team or a strike force that's been organized purposely to deal with land use conflicts vis-a-vis Aboriginal people. That causes us a great deal of concern. We're having a meeting with the premier towards the end of this month and we're going to certainly express our concerns at that meeting."
First Nations leaders in the area have united in condemning RCMP actions in the area to date. Eight Native people were arrested after a violent confrontation with non-Native people at Sun Peaks on June 24. No non-Native person has been arrested, despite the fact that both sides claim the other side provoked the fight. One non-Native man was taken to hospital for stitches after a scuffle with the members of the Native Youth Movement who allege the man, drunk and confrontational, left an onsite bar and punched a young Native woman in the face.
After the altercation when Aboriginal Peoples Television Network [APTN] reporter Todd Lamirande drove away from the scene to file his story, RCMP Cst. Daryl Schimpf stopped the APTN van and demanded the reporter's tapes. When Lamirande refused, his car and the tapes were seized.
Rob McDiarmid, legal counsel for APTN, filed a lawsuit related to the seizure in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops on July 4. The legal action demands the return of all copies made of the tapes and seeks punitive and aggravated damages and an injunction preventing the RCMP from using the tapes or making copies.
Lamirande told Windspeaker the lawsuit claims the RCMP violated APTN's copyright when police officers copied the videotapes. The statement of claim also alleges the tapes were played at Nicole Manuel's bail hearing. Manuel, the daughter of tribal council chairman Art Manuel, is one of the protesters charged after the incident.
Recently assigned to APTN's Vancouver bureau after several years in Manitoba, Lamirande is not impressed with the RCMP's handling of this situation.
"If I'd worked for CBC or CTV, this wouldn't have happened," he said July 5. "The RCMP have been heavy-handed here. Aboriginal people are not being treated fairly. My whole faith in the RCMP hs gone out the window. It just seems a little one-sided."
A Metis man who describes himself as "not visibly Aboriginal," Lamirande said he had heard for years that Native people were discriminated against by police but said he had never previously seen it first hand.
"What surprised me is how quickly they involved the major crime division," he said. "When they stopped me, they towed my car to Kamloops and I wasn't under arrest but I needed a ride so I went with the officer. When I got to the station, two plainclothes officers interviewed me. One showed me a card and it said major crime division."
Native leaders frequently complain that when Native people stage political demonstrations, the police treat them as terrorists. Released RCMP national security and CSIS documents confirm that senior Canadian intelligence personnel monitor Native activism. Reports dealing with Native activism are frequently in the same documents as reports on international terrorists and other threats to national security.
Last October, members of the Native Youth Movement set up Skwelkwek'welt Protection Centre, a protest camp on the land planned for development in the $70 million expansion project at Sun Peaks. The Secwepemc people claim the land is part of their traditional territory and also claim they have a right to stop the development on the land. The group of young people had previously occupied the Westbank First Nation band office and the Vancouver office of the BC Treaty Commission.
Local support for the protest is not unanimous. Some First Nations politicians have said they resent the presence of outside activists in their region. One source said hostility towards Native people is growing in the area because the protest is seen as an economic threat.
One band in the region-the Kamloops Indian Band-has decided to remain neutral in the dispute, neither participating in nor condemning activities at the Skwelkwek'welt Protection Centre. Some Shuswap Tribal Council members hve considered pulling out of the tribal council as a sign of a lack of confidence in the tribal council chair, Art Manuel, because he has supported the extreme measures that have led to the confrontation.
Manuel recently told this publication that he is urging his people to exercise their rights to the land as affirmed in the Supreme Court of Canada's Delgamuukw decision. Manuel chairs the Assembly of First Nations' Delgamuukw implementation committee. He and other Native leaders are frustrated that neither the province nor the federal government have embraced the court decision that ruled, in part, that Aboriginal title is "a right to the land itself."
British Columbia, unlike most areas in Canada, has few treaties. In the Delgamuukw case, the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en people of Northern B.C. claim they still hold title to their traditional lands because they never surrendered the land or entered into any treaty. The court did not rule on that contention, deciding instead to send the case back to trial because of errors by the lower court judge. But the decision did recognize that Aboriginal title, the legal concept upon which the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en based their claim, does exist in Canadian law. Since then, Native leaders have urged federal and provincial governments to adjust their approach to treaty and land claim negotiations. Manuel and others say they've waited in vain since the December 1997 decision and now are forced to take action.
Activists at Sun Peaks note that several of their number were arrested promptly after the June 24 incident, but there has been no arrest in a case they claim was arson. A log cabin that was part of the protection centre camp was burned down on June 30. The protesters discovered the damage early that morning.
"We are looking at a well planned act," said Chief Manuel. "Whoever did this had to have the equipment to haul sufficient fuel to the location and spray it all over the log cabin."
The protesters at Sun Peaks hav said they will not move, even if ordered to do so by a court and even if faced with police or military force. A standoff of Oka or Gustafsen Lake proportions is looming.
"We spoke to the group that's up there by speaker phone this morning and the Elders and the grassroots people have made it very, very clear, they're not moving," said Chief Stewart Phillip on July 10. "They're there to stay. The Sun Peaks resort are seeking an injunction in the courts on Friday (July 13) in Vancouver (after Windspeaker press time). The people in the camp have said regardless of that, we're not moving. We're not going to abandon this struggle until the expansion is abandoned."
Phillip warned authorities that force is not the answer.
"There are many Aboriginal communities in British Columbia that are monitoring the situation very closely that have committed their support in the event there is any kind of heavy-handed action taken by the provincial government through the RCMP. I think it would be a huge step backwards. It would take us right back to 1990. You would see, instantaneously, solidarity erupt around the province, the same as happened during the Oka crisis. Roadblocks sprung up all over the province," he said.
"What energizes the movement is the appalling poverty conditions in our communities. The massive unemployment, the economic marginalization, the lack of opportunity and yet you have the Delgamuukw decision which guarantees us access to land and resources, to share in the wealth of the resources within our territories but that is denied by the government's refusal to acknowledge the Delgamuukw decision. Needless to say, the BC treaty process has collapsed and failed to produce any results, so you have a very desperate situation in our communities. Many of our bands are running huge deficits, attempting to meet the growing needs in our communities, and the operative word is growing. It's a very, very serious situation and the government needs to realize that and we