Mount Currie moves forward
By Stephen Vogler
Outside the Mount Currie community gym, the sky is a deep blue and the smell of wood smoke lingers in the air. The white peaks of Mount Currie (Ts’zil) to the south and Qatsqílnestn to the north appear closer than usual today as they jut upwards into the remaining sunlight. Their thickly forested sides roll down toward the reserve, and in the clear light I feel like I can make out each individual tree. I’m only looking at a small portion of the Lil’wat traditional territory, but these are some of the lands being discussed inside at an open house to view the Ministry of Forests’ and licensees development plans.
Tables are arranged in the front half of the gym with various forest companies displaying their five year logging plans. The Ministry of Forests has its own table and so does Forest Renewal B.C., a program set up by the provincial government to help create employment in the forest sector. But there is something different here from other MoF open houses throughout the corridor. At least half of the tables are occupied by the people of Mount Currie displaying traditional Lil’wat uses of the land. Behind one table hangs a huge map of the entire Lil’wat territory. Over 200 place names are written in the Lil’wat language (Ucwalmícwts) with English translations of their meanings. Marie Abraham has done the research for the project, and she hands me a smaller version of the map as well as translations of some traditional stories (Icin’as) that have been transcribed from Lil’wat elders.
At another table, Johnny Jones, the Lil’wat cultural heritage resource technician shows me photographs of recently discovered pictographs, culturally modified trees, and information on traditional forest uses such as berry and mushroom harvesting. At yet another table, Johnnie Abraham has compiled much of the information from the others into a comprehensive computer mapping system. He demonstrates how the Arc View GIS software allows him to map traditional and cultural areas such as village sites, modified trees or berry picking areas for land use planning or consultation. When I show an interest in the Whistler Valley, he zooms in on a spot near Green Lake known as Kítsectsectn (deer’s rest down area), and projects the image onto a huge screen on the wall. I suddenly get the feeling that two different eras are crossing over before my eyes.
Lyle Leo is a Mount Currie Band councillor who has helped set many of these projects into motion under the Lil’wat Traditional Use Study. The TUS is funded by Forest Renewal B.C. and was organized by Creekside Resources Inc., a business arm of the Mount Currie band for which Leo is CEO. He is in his early 40s, thoughtful and well-spoken, with a business-like manner. I ask him first about native land claims and why the Lil’wat are not pursuing the current treaty process.
"The main reason the Mount Currie Band isn’t involved in the treaty process," Leo says, "is that the people have said they do not want to be involved in it. What they say is: ‘Why should we sign away something that our future children have the right to make a decision on themselves.’" Many people see the current treaty process as an opportunity for First Nations to regain control of their destiny as well as portions of their lands. But to the Lil’wat, and about 30 per cent of the First Nations in the province, the treaty condition of signing away their inherent right to the land is too big of a price to pay.
While they haven’t joined the treaty process, the Mount Currie Band has been asserting some forms of self-government, Leo says. They’ve had control of their own school system for the past 20 years, where there is now pre-school to adult education with the Lil’wat language taught in every grade. "Preserving the language is very important, because the Lil’wat people realize that the language is their identity," Leo says. Other areas of self-government include tribal policing on the reserve, child welfare, health, and most recently, cultural heritage renewable and non-renewable resources.
Leo points around the room to the many different parties with interests in those resources. "This open house here is basically the forest developments that are happening within our traditional territory," he says. "This allows for the community to start expressing their concerns — what they want to see and what they don’t want to see." Then he backs up a few decades to give a historical perspective on what is happening today. "The Lil’wat people have a very strong tradition in this area, and they are a very strong people," he says. "They are very vocal in expressing themselves with a lot of issues that are happening within their traditional territory. A lot of the concerns are very complex because the highway to Mount Currie wasn’t put through until 1966. Just in that 32 years, there’s been a huge impact on the way of life here, which is why a lot of people are still confused — with the road coming and the economic development — the resource extraction without the community benefiting. We have people who are still very attached to the land. Many of them were still living their traditional way of life in the watersheds they are now alienated from because of the resource developments."
Now, the Lil’wat are just beginning to catch up — just beginning to get organized with what the Ministry of Forests and the licencees are doing. They’re beginning to prioritize areas that they see need protecting. "We want the community to participate more," Leo says. "We want them to tell us if they want a moratorium on pesticide and herbicide use; we want them to tell us if they don’t want to see certain harvesting practices happening; and we also want to know in the big picture, do they want a moratorium in their whole traditional territory in all resource developments."
This brings me to my next question of how the recent Delgamuuk Supreme Court decision affects the Lil’wat in respect to their land. (The December 1997 Delgamuuk decision involving the Gitksan in northern B.C. over-turned an earlier 1993 ruling and gave natives rights to land where treaties are not signed — including rights to resources.) Leo says the decision was even more favourable than they had anticipated, and they have hired a lawyer to determine exactly what it will mean for them. He says the decision described native rights in terms of a spectrum, where on one end you have traditional uses of the land like fishing and hunting, berry picking and spiritual sites, right up to occupancy areas such as village sites and burial sites. Their job now, with the help of the community, he says, is to determine how they want to assert their title over those and other areas within their territory.
A key element of the Delgamuuk decision for the Lil’wat, and all aboriginal peoples, was the acceptance of oral history as a valid historical record. Leo points to the Traditional Use Study — to the compiling of Lil’wat place names, stories and traditions — as an important step in documenting that oral history. He also points proudly to the other programs he has gotten off the ground for the Mount Currie band. Having graduated from BCIT in 1992 with a diploma in Renewable Resources, Leo watched a steady stream of notices flow into the band office from resource developers regarding everything from forestry cutblocks to mining to water. While working for the band office in 1995, he saw a window of opportunity with Forest Renewal B.C. to keep some of those contracts within the community. In the first year, the newly created Creekside Resources Inc. put 80 people to work (a big contribution in a community of 1,400 with 85 per cent unemployment) and became the largest silviculture contractor in the area. Leo says: "We haven’t cut a commercial tree down yet — we started out with $5,000 in the bank and this year we generated $1.5 million."
Leo feels that the band should start participating in more of the resource decisions on their lands. Through their business arm of Creekside Resources Inc., he believes they can become a "serious player" in resource development. "For the past year, the Mount Currie band has been identifying areas for economic developments," he says. "And now we are going through community consultation, meetings."
But not everyone in the community is pleased with the band council’s new business approach. Harold Pascal, the guardian of Lil’wat burial sites, has been battling the courts for recognition of Lil’wat sovereignty since the late 1980s. He and his wife Loretta are concerned about the band council’s plan to offer 49- and 99-year leases on portions of their land for residential or resource development. In the proposed agreement, the leases could go to a band-owned company, a joint venture or another company or person approved by the council. "Because it says we’d have to surrender those lands, and we’d lose our rights to those lands, we don’t want to do that," Loretta says. She also points out that a band council decision, without her, or any other band member’s, consent, would be an infringement on their rights under the Delgamuuk ruling. Harold also questions the authority of the band council which is a product of the Indian Act. "We’re living with an Indian Act that violates our human rights," he says. "Every two years our government changes here. We find in our history that it didn’t happen that way."
Mount Currie is clearly a diverse community with a broad range of ideas on how it should proceed. While Harold Pascal denounces the current political framework and continues to fight for Lil’wat sovereignty in the courts, Lyle Leo and others find it useful to work within that framework. Still, Pascal admits there is some common ground between his approach and that of the band council. "We’re more or less in agreement that we are pursuing the same goal," he says. Regaining control of their traditional lands and their identity as a people is clearly a part of that goal. So is keeping the Lil’wat language and customs alive, and maintaining the ability to live off the land.
Perhaps the work of Lyle Leo and others on the Traditional Use Study will ultimately help Pascal if the Supreme Court of Canada decides to hear his case. And if Pascal manages to win a landmark decision on sovereignty such as the Delgamuuk, it will advance the cause of the entire community of Mount Currie, and of all first nations in the province.