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Rights + Justice

Treaty Troubles: Colonialism's Deep Currents

Dispute between the Yale and Stó:lō may be most contentious case of competing claims in BC. First in a series.

Carly Wignes 11 Dec

Carly Wignes is a Vancouver-based journalist recently graduated with a diploma from the journalism program at Langara College.

This project was funded by the Jeani Read-Michael Mercer Scholarship for Journalism at Langara College, endowed in honour of late Province columnist Jeani Read by her husband, the late screenwriter Michael Mercer. 

[Editor's note: The 20-year effort to create modern treaties between B.C. First Nations and the federal and provincial governments has not produced many agreements. Underlying the challenge are complex structural relationships between First Nations that more than a century of colonial influence has aggravated. This four-part series by Carly Wignes looks at the deep tension one potential treaty has created, how others have succeeded, and the complex history that makes it so difficult to redress longstanding inequity.]

About five kilometres north of Yale, just off Highway 1 past Saddle Rock Tunnel, the Douglas family has set up camp for the summer. A few tents, foldable chairs and a canopy mark their site along the Fraser River, next to the railroad tracks and a now-overgrown trail once used by tens of thousands of miners travelling north during the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush.

The campsite is located along the Five Mile Fishery, a stretch of the river that got its name in 1879 when Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat declared that the area would be left to those who had fished there "from time immemorial." Now, an imminent treaty has pitted First Nations against each other in their claim to this land.

Only federal approval is required to confirm the Yale First Nation's treaty settlement, just the third to be finalized in a modern treaty-making process that dates back to 1992. But the Stó:lō, a Coast Salish group that includes more than two dozen bands, believe the Yale treaty would alienate part of its traditional territory from Stó:lō use. Corky Douglas, a member of the Cheam band whose main community is located on the Cheam Reserve near Chilliwack, is among them. Cheam First Nation is a member of the Stó:lō Tribal Council, which is not participating in the treaty process unlike the other Stó:lō tribal council called Stó:lō Nation. Feelings run deep, and some fear violence might result if the federal government approves it.

The Stó:lō and Yale bands' competing claims exemplify conflicts between bands across the province that have severely complicated the treaty-making process. Some argue the Yale First Nation should be part of the Stó:lō community. How has culture based on clan relationships evolved under an imposed system of government reserves? Who belongs to which band? What happens when traditional hunting and fishing territories overlap? The passage of more than a century has only complicated aboriginal rights and relationships that early governments on Canada's West Coast ignored and abused.

For the Stó:lō, or people of the river, the relationship to fish runs deep. Ancestors left stone tools and spearheads that date back nearly 10,000 years along the lower Fraser. A study done in the early 1970s showed that just before settlers arrived in British Columbia the Stó:lō diet was composed almost entirely of fish and other marine proteins from the river. By returning to the canyon every summer to fish, the Douglas family preserves that tradition.

"This is where I come to ground myself," says 54-year-old Corky Douglas as he stands on the rugged rocks below his family's campsite, where the Fraser's surging rapids carve a narrow opening between steep wooded cliffs. Currents of water spin frantically behind him as the occasional salmon launches itself above the surface and splashes into a web of pinkish-orange netting held up by egg-shaped floats. During a particularly successful run, the gillnets can catch 600 fish overnight.

Next to the Douglas's site, a two-level dry rack juts out on a rocky perch overlooking the river. One of Douglas' cousins cuts a freshly skinned salmon into small, fleshy pink pieces. They will be added to hundreds of other pieces that hang from nets strung between posts on the rack's lower level. On the upper floor, the fish are kept whole and hang in rows, like laundry drying on a clothesline, beneath a slanted tin roof. It takes about a week for the wind coming through the canyon to dry the fish to a jerky-like texture that will keep all year.

Tucked beneath fir trees behind the dry rack, Corky's uncle's old campsite blends into the shady forest. The late Grand Chief Archie Charles, C.M., or simply "Papa," as his family refers to him, established the small camp in 1976 to continue to fish, as his ancestors have for thousands of year before. Since he built the site, Charles's nine children and many grandchildren have returned every year to fish. "There's five generations here," says Caroline Credico, Charles's eldest daughter. "A lot of the children know how to cut the fish. They'll pack the fish. Everyone's here to do something." But it's not a vacation, she adds. "It's our food for the winter. And it's for our traditional ceremonies."

But because the fishing sites lie within the boundary of proposed Yale First Nation Treaty Settlement Lands, Douglas and his family wonder whether they'll be able to return to the same spot to fish next summer.

'Standing apart'

After 17 years of negotiations, it is now up to the federal government to ratify the Yale Final Agreement, which grants the First Nation rights over and benefits from specified land and resources. The Yale claim extends north to south from Saddle Rock, above the town of Yale, almost to Hope and east to west from Harrison Lake to Tulameen Mountain, about 10 kilometres past the Coquihalla Highway. Chuck Strahl, the former Chilliwack MP and minister of Aboriginal affairs and northern development, says the deal shows that the B.C. treaty process is producing results. "Yale First Nation will have the tools and authority to take control of its future," he said when the final agreement was initialed by the chief negotiators of Yale First Nation, B.C. and Canada in Feb. 2010. The Yale people, made up of more than 155 members located about 20 kilometres north of Hope, will receive a cash settlement of $10.7 million, an economic development fund of $2.2 million, and ownership and management of resources on 1,966 hectares of treaty settlement lands. In return, the First Nation must agree not to assert any other governance-related rights than the ones set out in the treaty.

However, the Stó:lō maintain that Yale First Nation is a part of the larger Stó:lō tribal nation. They say that the Yale Treaty would alienate traditional Stó:lō territory from its members.

Yet the Yale Band adamantly denies any cultural connection to the Stó:lō and instead describes itself as an "independent" First Nation, "standing apart" from Stó:lō Nation. Bob Hope, who has been the chief of Yale First Nation for 34 years, says when settlers arrived in British Columbia, "Indian Affairs of the day set up an administration in Chilliwack," south of Harrison Lake and it "included Yale with the Stó:lō groups." Now, he says, the Stó:lō are delaying and challenging the Yale treaty to advance their own ambitious goals. Hope says the Stó:lō claim land that covers the lower half of B.C. "One would only have to look at their statement of intent map" to show that "they thought the treaty process was a big land grab," he said. "The Stó:lō want to take everything."

The core interest area of Stó:lō Nation, which is halfway through the treaty negotiation process, stretches from the town of Yale down to Cultus Lake and from Maple Ridge to just east of Hope. When the Stó:lō Tribal Council formed in 2004, the eight Stó:lō bands that withdrew from Stó:lō Nation chose not participate in treaty negotiations. A mediation process between the two Stó:lō groups and Yale First Nation began more than a decade ago when the treaty commission hired the highly respected Vince Ready to help the groups bridge an agreement. But an inconsistent commitment to reconciliation has left the groups with no final consensus about how the land ought to be shared.

Despite the uncertainty, Hope says he expects federal approval for the Yale treaty "in the next few weeks" when the federal government meets in the House of Commons. But the exact timing for ratification has yet to be determined, according to a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Genevieve Guibert said that "Canada has been consulting with Yale and neighbouring First Nations" and that, "if necessary," the treaty may be altered to include "additional measures" that address overlapping claims.

582px version of Hanging Fraser River salmon
Salmon hang in the racks along the Fraser River until they dry to a texture that will keep throughout the year. Photo by Carly Wignes.

According to Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre, "there's no doubt" the federal government is using the disputed claims between the Yale and Stó:lō as an "easy way out" to stall the treaty. "It's a good fall back position for the government to not make a decision," she told The Tyee. "Even though they've gone through the whole negotiation process with Yale and made commitments to Chief Hope's community."

The longstanding dispute between the Yale and Stó:lō, which may be the most contentious case in the province, shows how difficult it is to reach those agreements. But, Pierre asked, "Does that mean that one First Nation can have a veto over another First Nation?"

If the federal government ratifies the Yale Treaty as it is currently written, the Stó:lō Tribal Council says the Yale chief will probably demand a permit from Stó:lō members before they can access the canyon fishing sites and dry racks. Douglas says there are more than a dozen families that fish in "just that one little area" near his family's campsite, and many more along the Five Mile Fishery.

"We all share those grounds," he said. But if the proposed Yale agreement goes through, Douglas says the situation could lead to violence. "It'd be almost a war."

A memorial sabotaged

The escalating hostility between the Yale and Stó:lō can be traced in part to the late 19th century. When construction on the Canadian Pacific Railway began near the canyon in 1879, tracks were planned directly through Stó:lō burial grounds. The remains of hundreds of bodies were dug up and reburied in four caskets at a place called I:yem, which became part of Yale Indian Reserve 22. When the Stó:lō people organized a ceremony in 2008 to replace a missing plaque at the I:yem cemetery, members of the Yale First Nation protested by throwing the monument upon which the plaque would go over the riverbank. "I don't know how people can do that to their own people," Douglas said when he recalled the incident.

The Stó:lō community called upon its "War Council" in Nov. 2011 to plan a strategy to challenge the Yale First Nation's treaty. Stó:lō Tribal Council Grand Chief Doug Kelly told The Globe and Mail at the time that he feared a "very violent altercation" along the Fraser River might result if the federal government ratifies the treaty. He said the War Council was meant to send a "very clear message" to the government about the seriousness of the situation and that an "on-the-ground strategy" would be prepared to protect Stó:lō members if necessary.

Chief Hope says he's "not worried at all" about the Stó:lō. "If they were ever to prove their Aboriginal rights here in the Yale territory, we would amend the treaty to correct things."

Among the few treaties that have been concluded in B.C., some bands have amicably resolved shared territory issues, despite the ways in which colonial influence and the evolution of aboriginal relationships have distorted them. The First Nations that have overcome these challenges have shown that, even in a modern process, traditional methods hold sway.

Tomorrow: Part two of the series will look at the creation of the reserve system, how Indian Land Reserve Commissioner Malcolm Gilbert Sproat struggled with its limitations, and how band relationships have evolved as a result of the system.  [Tyee]

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