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Band unity saves lake from development

Joan Taillon,, Raven's Eye Writer, Osoyoos

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The chiefs of the Okanagan Nation Alliance say it is the first time they can remember the federal government keeping a promise, but now that the seven non-treaty bands have had their sacred lake returned to them they are commending federal negotiators for a job well done.

The federal government will pay $720,000 to purchase Spotted Lake, near the town of Osoyoos, on behalf of the Alliance. The deal was announced on Oct. 26, said Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie.

The British Crown had agreed in the 1860s to set aside the land the lake is on for a reserve, and permitted the bands to put a fence around it in 1911, but the province sold it in 1930.

Now the matter of ownership is resolved, Louie said, they are planning a celebration.

"The bands have committed time, effort and resources, and a planning group to organize the celebration date in the spring," he said. "One would be private, just for the Okanagan people, and one would be public . . . because the general public was very supportive of the Okanagan people getting this lake back." He added he got phone calls and e-mails from people from all walks of life, including teachers, business people, government members and local media. "Both celebrations will be pretty special."

The former holders of title to the lake, the Smith family, had refused to meet or speak with the Okanagan chiefs, and had demanded $1.2 million for the land through their lawyer.

In commercial terms, the property was believed to be worth $250,000 and the Alliance had previously offered half a million.

In the end, it was "money" that brought the two sides to a settlement, said Chief Dan Wilson of the Okanagan Indian band.

The Okanagan Nation had tried to get the government to buy the property for years, as the government had committed to do, but the issue became critical when the Smith family indicated they intended to turn Spotted Lake into a cash cow.

It had already been exploited: As a result of mining for minerals used in flares for the First World War effort, the lake lost its unique rainbow colors.

Wilson said their Elders told them that the lake had lost its rainbow colors "because it was not being respected." Now the color is starting to return.

The Alliance was aghast when an invitation to tender bids to haul 10,000 tons of mineral mud from the lake was placed in the Osoyoos newspaper, although Wilson now believes that was a pressure tactic to get the federal government to meet their demands.

The issue caused the seven bands to strengthen their ties and to raise money for their cause and gain public support.

Not only that, but for the first time in more than 100 years, they built their exceptionally fast, dugout cottonwood canoes to make a "unity trek" from the head of Okanagan Lake down to Washington, where the Okanagan River empties into the Columbia River. This was their response to a vision by one of their Elders, who said if they didn't make this trip they were "in danger of falling apart as a people," Wilson said.

Eleven months ago, the Alliance said that under no circumstances would they allow the Smiths to mine the mineral-rich mud from the 365 pools in the lake and sell it for spa and cosmetic purposes.

Band members kept watch to make sure that didn't happen. The situation threatened to get extremely ugly.

Rising tension in the Okanagan Nation as a result of the proposed commercialization of the lake caused the federal government to fast-track the purchase.

"By acting as a nation, we were able to get the province to bend and Canada to bend, and I think it should be an example to all nations out there to get united and start acting as a nation," Wilson concluded.

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