On September 22, 2004, the RCMP raided a First Nation camp on the golf course of the Sun Peaks Resort, near Kamloops, British Columbia, arresting three people and destroying the camp. Members of local Secwepemc (also known in English as Shuswap) communities had established the camp, called the Skwelkwek’welt Protection Centre in late August to oppose the continued development of Sun Peaks on the traditional territory of the Secwepemc, Neskonlith and Adams Lake bands. In removing the camp and arresting those Skwelkwekwelt defenders who refused to leave, the police were enforcing a provincial court injunction ordering local Aboriginal activists and their supporters off the mountain. These arrests represent just one instance in the ongoing repression of Secwepemc peoples fighting for their land and dignity; during the past six years of the conflict, 54 Skewelkwek’welt defenders have been arrested.
In November, this continuing injustice was reinforced, as a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed the appeal of eight Aboriginal people convicted of public mischief and intimidation after setting up roadblocks in 2001. The judge, in accordance with other decisions by the courts, rejected that the Secwepemc possess a legal and traditional right, if not responsibility, to defend their territory.
The Secwepemc never relinquished this territory to either the provincial or federal governments by either land claim or treaty. Nevertheless, the provincial government granted a master lease for the mountains to Sun Peaks, a resort that presently encompasses three mountains and hosts over 3,600 skiable acres of terrain. The master lease exempts future developments from future environmental and social impact assessments. In return for installing ski lifts, fee-simple title is granted over base land. This base land can then be sold off in what a Sun Peaks press release calls a “sonic boom in real estate opportunities.”
Undaunted by the provincial court’s duplicity, Secwepemc activists remain committed to resist Sun Peaks’ encroachment on their land in accordance with their own laws. According to spokesperson Niki Manuel, “As Secwepemc, [we] have a duty and an obligation to protect our land.” Manuel, already a victim of state persecution, having been sentenced to 45 days jail time and one year probation for occupying the land in 2002, announced that despite “racist decisions and sentences, we will not be deterred from our duty to defend and protect our homeland. The land is our life and without it our future generations will become landless, leading the Secwepemc to cultural and spiritual extinction.”
There is little evidence of this commitment waning. “This was the eighth Skwelkwek’welt Protection Centre. There will be a ninth. Our rights are here and we will continue to stand our ground,” vowed Arthur Manuel. Since purchasing the resort in 1992, Nippon Cable has vigorously pursued development. Previously simply a winter ski resort, the new management has redefined the resort as “an all-seasons destination.” This has increased the human presence on the mountains and their related ecological disruption. The site now employs 1,100, and is home to 400 permanent residents. On-site accommodation has increased from 100 beds to over 5,800, and lift capacity has been increased to allow for the delivery of 8,000 people a day to the mountains.
Sun Peaks is engaged in an extensive four-phase development plan, intending to further increase capacity to 20,000 beds. The B.C. government approved the $70-million first phase of the expansion (now completed), which cut ski runs on the previously undeveloped Mt. Morrisey. In 2002, Sun Peaks boasted of the $20-million “massive new 220 room Delta hotel” sitting in the midst of booming construction. This summer, in connection with Vancouver’s Olympic bid, the government approved the second phase of development totaling $285 million, further damaging the hills with trails, roads, condominiums, lifts and snowmaking equipment.
The Secwepemc assert that the ongoing expansion of Sun Peaks Ski Resort will undermine their ability to exercise their inherent rights to land-use and occupancy and, thus, their Aboriginal title to the land. The federal and provincial governments have refused to acknowledge Secwepemc title and enter negotiations to establish co-jurisdiction. Moreover, the government has not upheld its fiduciary obligation to consult the Secwepemc, disregarding environmental and cultural impact studies performed by the Adams Lake and Neskonlith Indian Bands. Instead, development has proceeded largely unabated since 1997, despite the ongoing Secwepemc resistance.
Most of B.C. consists of unceded, non-treaty territory, as the government abandoned treaty-making early in the colony’s history. Thus, the majority of B.C. was never “acquired” from its Aboriginal owners before being distributed by the government. It was not until court decisions like Calder and Sparrow put the lie to the government claim of sole title and jurisdiction over unceded lands that the governments recognized the necessity of negotiations. In 1990, B.C. began negotiating land claims first with the Nisga’a, then with other First Nations in 1993. From the perspective of many Aboriginal groups, however, the purpose of these negotiations is to eliminate Aboriginal title and to solidify the government as the sole authority in the province. Many nations, like the Secwepemc, want to maintain their ties to the land base and establish a co-jurisdictional arrangement. This is impossible within the current land-claims framework. For this and other reasons, the majority of land claims east of the Rockies remain unresolved in B.C. Furthermore, as the government is holding unceded territories in trust until agreements are reached, the Crown has an fiduciary obligation to recognize the Aboriginal interests, until the dispute over ownership can be resolved. This requires the government to consult with Aboriginal People, as reaffirmed in the recent Supreme Court Haida decision and in some instances to obtain First Nations consent every time that there are potential infringements of Aboriginal title.
However, the government shirks this responsibility by refusing to acknowledge Aboriginal title to groups that have not entered the land-claims process. As this process requires that Aboriginal groups cede title and rights for a specific subset of their traditional rights and land plus compensation, Aboriginals can only assert their rights by agreeing to abdicate them. This contradicts the nature of Aboriginal title as inherent to First Nations, not a function of colonial statute or process, and prevents the recognition of the Aboriginal rights and title of those who wish to maintain them. While the B.C. government proves its devotion to serving business interests at the same time as it abrogates its responsibilities to First Nations, Aboriginal peoples remain committed to defending their territories. The Shuswap Nation Tribal Council has established a working relationship with the Skwelkwek’welt Protection Centre to protect and exercise Secwepemc title and rights throughout their territory, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has pledged its continued support. All three groups have denounced the recent arrests as an attempt “to criminalize the presence of Indigenous Peoples on their own traditional lands.” The groups are asking that, instead of ignoring their responsibilities to Aboriginal peoples and using the police and courts to strip Aboriginal peoples of their land and persecute their resistance, the government must recognize Aboriginal law, title and rights, and seek a mutually agreeable solution that meets the needs of all peoples in B.C.
Take Action: 1) Boycott Sun Peaks and Delta Hotels. 2) Pressure (write letters) the B.C. and Canadian governments, as well as the management of Sun Peaks and Delta Hotels, to recognize Aboriginal rights and title in Skwelkwek’welt (the territory encompassing Sun Peaks). 3) Contribute to support the Secwepemc struggle.
For more information: http://apc.resist.ca/skwelkwekwelt
Originally from B.C., Tyler McCreary currently resides in Saskatoon, where he recently completed a degree in Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.
This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .