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Native unrest widespread in B.C.

Author: 
Rudy Haugeneder, Windspeaker Correspondent, Victoria
Volume: 
8
Issue: 
10
Year: 
1990

Page 7

Non-Natives see it as a fight for long overdue justice. But B.C. Indians see it as more than that. It's a fight for survival.

Without land and title, say the Indians, the province's aboriginal people will eventually cease to exist.

And that's why, for the past month, bands across the province have been staging a series of roadblocks.

It's the only way they can get Ottawa and the provincial government to listen to their land claims.

It's been nearly 120 years since the fight began and the province's Native population says it won't wait any longer for government action.

There are many similarities to Oka. In fact the first blockades began as a show of sympathy for Oka Mohawks but quickly became a B.C. land-claim fight.

Indian leaders are worried it might escalate to an armed confrontation just like Oka unless the province clearly spells out it's willing to negotiate.

Unlike most provinces in Canada, there are virtually no treaties in B.C., leaving most of the province subject to land claims.

The Indians say most of the land and resources are theirs by virtue of aboriginal title. But the province says no way and claims it - not the Indians - owns the land.

Despite the provincial government's now softening stand on negotiations, B.C.'s Indian leadership has sent Premier Bill Vander Zalm's government a message - negotiate or risk an escalation of confrontations.

In essence, they warn the government to come to the negotiating table or face the prospect of an armed confrontation that could end in a shooting war.

The province's Indian leadership doesn't want Indian leadership doesn't want Indian frustration to end in tragedy, but warns, tensions are so high they might not be able to control their people. Barry Parker, an Okanagan Tribal Council spokesman, put it more forcefully.

"When people get hungry enough, they're three square meals away from revolution," he says.

Prof. Sam Stevens, a University of British Columbia Native law specialist, agrees.

He says the frustration and rediscovery of Indian pride sparked by Elijah Harper, the Manitoba Native MLA who helped kill the Meech Lake accord is responsible for the growing unrest in B.C.

Steven says although Natives claim the blockades support the Mohawks at Oka, "they are using the opportunity to release their frustrations relating to land claims in B.C."

Until the federal and provincial governments realize B.C. Indians aren't satisfied with being forced to live on tiny reserves, which only make up a fraction of their tribal territories, he says "this dispute will escalate."

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has advised all B.C. Indian bands to make road block preparations.

Saul Terry, the chiefs union president, says the action is needed in case the province again backs away from its position of getting ready to negotiate.

He says Indians have been "double-crossed" too often in the past.

Wil Sooks, a Gitksan hereditary chief warns: "The longer we sit back and do nothing (the longer) we will continue to lose.

"We should plan to shut the province down," he says. "We should do it."

But nobody's sure whether Premier Vander Zalm is listening.

Admitting the province has to revise its position a bit, the premier says "in the past we've consistently said it's a federal matter.

"When B.C. entered confederation, the terms provided that it be a federal matter - and we've stuck to this stubbornly."

He blames Ottawa for the current round of protests, saying the federal government is taking too long. "They only accept six claims a year. I don't know how long it takes to deal with them. And that's for the whole country.

"We have 21 comprehensive claims in B.C. alone. So the present system just won't do." Vander Zalm told reporters. "It'll take 150 years to get to some of the people waiting now.

Two days later, he modified his tune, after an interim report from the Premier's Council on Native Affairs, which recommended the province begin negotiations with Indian lad claims.

But the provincial cabinet won't decide until next month whether to take the step.

Although the report deals with economic and social issues, the main one is land claims.

It urges Ottawa to rework its policies and states B.C. must find new ways to address the issue.

"It is vital B.C. be an active participant at the negotiating table," says the report.

The province's only Indian MLA, Larry Guno, discounted the report as little more than a "[political football" that won't accomplish anything.

The Atlin New Democrat also says he fears the blockades will become violent.

"Elijah Harper and his lone stand on Meech gave our people a sense of 'Hey, we can challenge their moral authority and win.'"

Guno says Harper and the situation at Oka have given Indians the sense "we're not so powerless as we used to think."

Increasingly Indians across the province are considering defiance of provincial and federal law to defend lands they considered unsurrendered Indian land.

It's almost impossible to keep up with the number of blockades the province's 196 Indian bands with a population of 77,000 people have thrown up.

Among areas with either information blockades or highways that have been totally shut down by protesting Indians are: Oliver, Vernon and Penticton in the Okanagan; Fraser Lake, Moricetow, Gitwanga,New Ainyansh and Meziadin Junction aling the Yellowhead and north of Terrace; Alert Bay, Campbell River and Port Albverni on Vancouver Island; at Mount Currie and near Lillooet, where Indians previously blocked the B.C. Rail tracks and are still shutting down Highway 12B. There are also information pickets and blockades in North Vancouver and at the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver.

Information pickets and blockades are commonly called direct action.

The federal and provincial governments shouldn't be surprised it's happening.

Direct action, including armed defense and special Indian SWAT teams to deal with RCMP riot squads, were talked about seriously asrecently as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs conference two years ago in Kamloops.

This year, such tactics, including hunting without licences, and fishing year-round, have been talked about a three separate Indian conferences in B.C. - at Smithers, Prince George and Skidegate.

And Indians are serious about direct action.

Says Bill Wilson, president of B.C.'s First Nations Congress, "they're not going to be able to put 100,000 Indians in jail."

Richard Watts, spokesman for Vancouver Island's Nuu-ChanNulthe, says: "You've got to be ready to do these things if you want to protect your rights. Otherwise you might as well stay home and collect your welfare cheque."

At one of the strategy conferences earlier this year, Howard Gabriel, a youthful delegate from the Arrow Lakes Band, wrapped up the feeling of many young Indians.

"A lot of people may disagree with me. A lot of people don't want violence. But that may become a reality and you've heard that saying "I'd rather die on my feet than on my knees."

"Well," he said, "that's how I believe. Suicide before genocide. That's all I've got to say."

Ottawa and Victoria shouldn't be surprised at how fast B.C. Indians responded to the call to the barricades.

Most of the compressive claims the federal government has accepted to date come from this province.

And nearly two-thirds of the 500-plus specific land claims submitted to the federal government for action come from B.C.

Of all the comprehensive claims accepted by Ottawa, only the Nisga's Tribal Council's 2,375,000-hectare claim to the Nass River Valley is under negation.

That started in 1973 when six Supreme Court justices agreed aboriginal title exists in principle. Nearly two decades later, the dispute is still unresolved.

George Watts, chairman of the Nuu-Chan-Nulth Tribal Council, wonders aloud whether unions would still be sitting down with employers after 17 years of unsuccessful negotiations.

Not a chance, he suggests, asking why governments expect Inians to wait indefinitely.

Noting the recent Sparrow case heard in the Supreme Court again reiterated aboriginal rights have not been extinguished, Watts says he believes both the federal and provincial governments are breaking the law by not recognizing aboriginal title established in the sparrow case.

Settling B.C. land claims will be costly, says Ian Potter, director-general for comprehensive claims for Ottawa. They could cost the federal and provincial governments up to $2 bullion.

It might even be more, he warned. Factors such as resource rights can drive the costs considerably higher.

But it won't be quick, say Potter. Negotiations can stretch over years, thus making his rough estimate of the final cost of settlement difficult - especially since it involves such huge tracts of land.

Potter's estimates are probably overly conservative.

Don Ryan, speaker of the Gitksan Wet'suwet'en, says former Indian affairs minister Piette Cadieux told him Ottawa is prepared to make them a $6.8 billion offer for the settlement of all Indian land claims in B.C.

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