For two intense weeks, the Upper Nicola Band anticipated an all-out confrontation with the RCMP at the Douglas Lake reserve, about a three-hour drive east of Vanvouver, after if resorted to a blockade to protect its Aboriginal rights.
But that confrontation never happened and the blockade was dismantled peacefully as an initial deal was struck between the Upper Nicola Band the provincial and federal government on June 8. Talks are currently underway.
The quiet hills surrounding Douglas Lake were scrutinized by police helicopters while band members monitored their roadblocks with binoculars and dug trenches in preparations for a possible confrontation with the RCMP. The RCMP was under pressure to enforce a court injunction to take down the blockade.
The 20-member band is located in the heart of the Nicola Valley and approximately 70 km east of Merritt, B.C. The Douglas Lake Cattle Company, one of the largest ranches in Canada, borders the Upper Nicola Band Lands.
Ongoing conflicts between the ranch and the band date back to 1984. Tensions escalated during the past seven weeks, stirring international and national media attention.
The incident reviving bad relations with the Douglas Lake Cattle Company started at Minnie Lake, where the band has traditionally fished for hundreds of years. An agreement signed by a federal agent in 1878 attested to the rights of the Upper Nicola Band to retain access to fish several lakes, including Minnie and Stoney Lakes.
Minnie Lake is surrounded by private property owned by the ranch. Four Upper Nicola band members were arrested while fishing with gill-nets at Minnie lake.
The ranch has been commercially stocking lakes for the benefit of its fishing resorts.
Ranch management claimed that band was wiping out all the fish because its members were using gill-nets.
Four Upper Nicola band members, who were later charged with trespassing on private property, voluntarily left with Merritt RCMP.
In another incident following the first arrests, another two band members were arrested and charged with trespassing as well as theft under $1,000.
"This has gotten us angered," said Upper Nicola Band Chief Scotty Holmes, following the arrests. "We're disappointed in the way they're (the ranch) treating us.
Chief Holmes pointed to the document that reads "The Indians are to have access to, and to be at liberty to carry on, as formerly, their fisheries for the various kinds of fish, at the accustomed fishing places.' The agreement continues to list the various watersheds the band retained access to, one of which was Minnie Lake.
An agreement ensuring access and good relations between the ranch and the Upper Nicola Band was not renewed after expiring in December of 1994.
The band then set up an informational road block in the initial stages of the conflict at the gates to reserve property near the community and the band's administration office and near Salmon Lake during the week of May 3, 1995.
A B.C. Supreme Court injunction was issued by RCMP to the band on behalf of the Douglas Lake Cattle Company of May 9, 1995. The band honored the first injunction and the road block lasted four days.
The court injunction to dismantle the first blockade expired and the band pursued four more road blocks at various access points while ranch management pursued a renewal of the court injunction.
The second blockade, at the junction of the old Kamloops highway and the Douglas Lake road, continued to block ranch traffic and tourists. However, local traffic was granted access. The second major blockade went up on May 24.
On the following Saturday another court injunction was issued by the RCMP. The band defied the injunction and continued to block ranch traffic for two weeks.
The weeks were wrought with escalating pressure during which the RCMP and the provincial government continued to press the band to remove the blockade in exchange for negotiations.
Throughout the conflict Chief Holmes maintaind that the band's conflict was not merely over fishing rights In an attempt to explain its position, the band called a press conference on June 1, 1995. High profile Native leaders spoke in support of the band's actions including Assembly of First Nations vice-chief Wendy Grant, Chiefs Executive of Penticton, Upper and Lower Similkameen Bands Stewart Phillip and Councillor Ken Dennis of the Adams Lake Band. Support came from all over the mainland.
Roughly 200 supporters set up camp near the Douglas Lake road blockade. Pressure from the provincial government, the general public and the RCMP continued but the band dug in its heels, refusing to remove the blockade.
They wanted to negotiate first. A provincial mediator was brought in to make recommendations to resolve the situation. During those days the band remained on red alert.
A minor crisis occurred which could have proved fatal when a local man attempted to crash the barricades while band leaders met with RCMP constables Eldene Stanley and Steve Belleau. The two constables later arrested the man.
Negotiations with RCMP constables Stanley and Belleau continued. The officers entered the talks on Sunday night and remained there until a deal was struck early Tuesday morning. The blockade would come down pending a guarantee from the RCMP that the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs John Cashore and a senior representative of the federal government would meet with the band Tuesday afternoon.
On June 7, an agreement was reached between the RCMP and the Upper Nicola Band. The dropping of charges against six band members played a significant role in reaching an agreement. Finally, the blockade slowly came down.
On June 8, 1995 an initial agreement between the band, the provincial government and the federal government was signed following a meeting between Cashore, a senior federal representative and the Upper Nicola Band.
The agreement tables a structured process at the end of which a final agreement is expected to be eached 30 days from June 8.