Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Making Treaty

Story and photos by Vivian Moreau There are just a few houses at the north end of Harrison Lake and a cairn that marks the significance of Port Douglas as a vital stepping stone to the mid-1800s gold rush fields.

Story and photos by Vivian Moreau

There are just a few houses at the north end of Harrison Lake and a cairn that marks the significance of Port Douglas as a vital stepping stone to the mid-1800s gold rush fields. But Eppa Gerard Peters stands on a grassy waterfront plain where he thinks a lodge should be built and managed by his people, In-SHUCK-ch First Nations, who live in the Lower Lillooet valley between Pemberton and Harrison Lake. He sees no irony in a First Nations community capitalizing on the historical white influx that changed his people forever – what he sees is opportunity.

"We have to be as creative as the market warrants," he said. "Gosh, we could do any number of things: put a paddle wheeler on the lake, build or rebuild a historic town site."

And with treaty negotiations nearing finalization the dream is closer to realization.

Peters, 58, chief negotiator for the In-SHUCK-ch’s population of almost 1,000, has been mired in treaty parlay for almost 10 years, intent on bringing 21 st -century independence and prosperity to his people through self-governance and business development. This week In-SHUCK-ch Nation, B.C., and Canada signed an agreement in principle; stage four – the nuts and bolts stage – of the six-step treaty negotiation process facilitated by the B.C. Treaty Commission.

Described by Peters as "fulsome," the deal includes $21 million cash and about 150 square kilometres of land that runs in a 65-kilometre linear strip from Lillooet Lake to Harrison Lake and includes sub-surface rights. The agreement in principle, one of only seven reached so far in B.C. and hammered out by Peters and a four-member support team, needs to be approved by In-SHUCK-ch interim government, made up of elected chiefs and council of the Xa’xtsa (Douglas) and Samahquam (Baptiste-Smith) and traditional chiefs and council of Skatin (Skookumchuk). They will, in turn, present it for approval to an In-SHUCK-ch general assembly in April.

Three chief negotiators at stage four signing of treaty negotiations between Canada, In-SHUCK-ch and B.C. Photo by Shannon Chapman

Although he refers to himself as a "technician," Peters is more than that: a compassionate patriarchal figure mentoring younger leaders and proposing long-term visionary plans for chiefs and councils to consider that include tourism development and forestry licence ventures. Heady stuff for a community that does not enjoy the accoutrements of most British Columbians, like telephone, hydro or paved highway, yet is only 10 minutes by helicopter from Whistler.

Keeping up with Peters on a sunny yet chilly February day is no easy task. The 12-hour trip into In-SHUCK-ch territory in the Lower Lillooet River valley begins with a stop at the Pemberton communications office for an update on wireless broadband hook-up for the three In-SHUCK-ch communities. Presently serviced with a temperamental UHF radio system that consistently fails when needed most, administrator Charles Peters had hoped for funding to bring broadband Internet access to the communities but approval recently fell through. Peters says the system "when it is running sounds like an oscillating fan blowing through so that recipient and caller can’t hear a thing." Communication is limited to two-way radios at band offices, and in some homes and vehicles in the communities.

Without landline telephones, keeping in touch is difficult between the 200 In-SHUCK-ch who live in "territory" – the Lillooet River valley between Pemberton and Harrison Lake – and the off-reserve members scattered throughout the Fraser Valley. For territory residents, during an emergency poor communication lines can be downright dangerous. Samahquam Chief William Schneider says the radio signal, beamed in from a repeater tower, often fails at inappropriate times. And even when working, emergency personnel are slow to respond to the isolated community that doesn’t have named streets or numbered houses.

A dichotomy

Unlike his father’s generation, who left the territory to look for work in the Fraser Valley, Peters built a spacious riverside log home where he lived with his wife and grown daughters nearby for many years. For the past few years he’s lived in Abbotsford with a new partner, and like many In-SHUCK-ch living off reserve, is anxious to return to the territory. But first an economy, negotiated through treaty, has to be built. Self-government, land, and cash are the key ingredients in a treaty being negotiated by In-SHUCK-ch Nation. Pit house photo by Shelley Peters

After clambering over rocks to visit with forestry engineers building a spur near a transformation rock on the river, a respite from the teeth-chattering washboard forestry road, we stop by the Peters’s family graveyard. He points out graves of a European great-grandmother and is telling me about his grandfather, Chief Nkasusa Harry Peters, who signed the 1911 Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe, when his daughter Shelley, headed toward Pemberton on errands, pulls up with a smile and shout of "Daddy!" It’s then the man described as no-nonsense, pragmatic and single-minded dissembles and hugs his daughter close.

Peters is a dichotomy: at once an outspoken In-SHUCK-ch ("I can’t wait for the day I don’t have to call myself an Indian anymore"), a savvy treaty negotiator ("perhaps the best in the province, says In-SHUCK-ch legal counsel Robert Reiter) and a keen intellectual ("a very capable collaborator," says Minister of Environment Barry Penner), he is also a spiritual loner.

Jody Wilson, who represents the B.C. Treaty Commission at the In-SHUCK-ch negotiation table, said Peters is an articulate, composed negotiator who understands the most intricate issues.

"I’m a lawyer and I go ‘OK, what are they talking about?’ but he is always on top of what’s going on at the table," she said.

Federal negotiator Tim Koepke said Peters’ additional skill is his ability to maintain strategic relationships, not only with other First Nations but with regional districts and non-First Nations business communities. He remembers a Chilliwack regional district dinner meeting when Peters walked the crowd through a power point presentation.

"I’ve been at this long enough to know there’s always a knee-jerk reaction and I saw absolutely no evidence of that. It was incredible to watch the relationship in the room."

Chilliwack-Kent MLA and Minister of Environment Barry Penner, has spent time the past four years discussing with Peters the merits of In-SHUCK-ch tourism development through improving the forestry road and creating a "Sasquatch Trail" circle drive. Citing him as shrewd and capable, Penner also found Peters to be a thoughtful, caring man.

"Two years ago I had very painful back surgery," recalls Penner. "I appreciated his concern and support through that."

Samahquam Chief William Schneider spoke of the careful and distant, but rich mentoring role Peters has provided.

"I’ve learned from working with Eppa, on how to speak up and be as direct as possible without losing focus of the message or confusing the message," Schneider said.

"It must have been a measuring process… when my role shifted from being a councillor to a leader and then Chief," Schneider said. "Eppa must have studied me just as carefully as I studied him."

Peters says he also needs to take time to study himself. In late afternoon, as low sunlight spills blues and ambers through the stained glass of the Church of the Holy Cross in Skatin, Peters admits he’s not as spiritually evolved as he should be.

"The result of the Catholic Church’s influence, in my situation, was to create a spiritual void, an emptiness where others find some security and solace in the church or in their cultural expressions," he said, toeing at the 100-year-old church’s buckling floorboards.

"I’m not as whole and rounded a human being as I possibly can be and I’d like to do something about that."

Observing sun dances is a start.

"I go to demonstrate my support that what they’re doing is good and right and valid," he said "and in so doing I’m trying to understand something about who I am."

Treaty as means to a beginning

Raised in Mount Currie, the only boy between six sisters, and educated at St. Mary’s residential school in Mission, Peters never learned his parents’ Ucalmicw (pronounced oo-kwal-MEWK) language. Through a circuitous career that included five years in the air force, studying English and Political Science at Langara College, reporting for and editing the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs’ newspaper and various stints as band manager, planner and tribal councillor, he finally landed in treaty negotiations in 1994. At that time In-SHUCK-ch, banded with neighbouring N’Quatqua Nation, were the first bargaining group to step into treaty negotiations with the federal government and the province.

Allen Bell, In-SHUCK-ch CEO and Eppa Gerard Peters chat with Skatin elder Richard Williams.

Retired chief federal negotiator Robin Dodson said negotiations stalled early on in the process and required a strategy rethink on Peters’s part.

"Gerard was… an old time negotiator, pounding his fist on the table, demanding this and demanding that," Dodson said. But in a private session with Dodson and an In-SHUCK-ch mediation advisor, Peters had an "epiphany," realizing treaty negotiations needed a different tact.

"I come from a culture of negotiating with Indian (and Northern) Affairs (Canada) that says if you want something from INAC and it’s just a finite pot that’s on the table you shake the table up. And that’s what I did," he said. "Always it was at the expense of someone else. I was aware of that and that’s how I played the game."

Of the 57 B.C, First Nations in treaty negotiations, Dodson said In-SHUCK-ch were the most advanced until 1999. An internal power struggle between In-SHUCK-ch and N’Quatqua councils brought the process to a halt for three years. Negotiations resumed in 2002 minus N’Quatqua, but with Peters firmly in place as chief negotiator, supported by his team and in consultations with chiefs and councils.

The stage four agreement signed March 21 means the Nation is one step closer to realizing self-governance, and to developing a tourism and forestry-based economy with historical and cultural ventures, ecotourism, and forestry licences.

Chief William Schneider said a thriving economy should bring back descendents of those who left the valley in the 1950s to look for work. He thinks an eco-tourism-focussed economy that includes guided hikes and canoe trips would attract visitors to his tiny community.

"They (visitors) will be able to see us not just as Aboriginals but as entrepreneurs and to allow us to see into the future to ensure our presence in the world."

And development would bring an influx of cash that could mean improvements for the village, like replacing the aging diesel generators – that cost up to $250,000 a year to rent – that power the community’s 18 homes. Although a 480-megawatt B.C. Hydro grid runs south to north through the territory, the In-SHUCK-ch do not have access to power .

At the south end of the territory, Tipella councillor Don Harris also has a problem with pricey diesel generators, but he’s just as worried about housing and estimates the village could use accommodation for another 40 people. Those houses could come in the form of cottages from a de-commissioned Canfor logging camp a few kilometres from the village.

Presently guarded by a caretaker and two feisty dogs, the aging camp houses are dank and chilly. But Peters said they could be renovated and prove a quick solution to the seemingly never ending housing tug of war between INAC and the In-SHUCK-ch communities. With the Canfor property included in the final treaty package, along with another property such as the St. Agnes hot springs further up the forestry road, Peters thinks his people will be one step further toward establishing an autonomous economy.

"In 2010, when world attention focuses on the region, part of that attention will focus on us as well and I’d sure like an opportunity to showcase the strides we will have made in four years," he said.

The basics of communications, hydro and an upgraded road into the area will attract investors to what the Federal Business Development Bank outlined to the In-SHUCK-ch as do-able opportunities. A resort development at the northern tip of Harrison Lake and a lodge at the St. Agnes (Skookumchuk) hot springs that capitalize on First Nations’ traditions and the area’s history could open up the valley’s beauty to the world.

Approaching In-SHUCK-ch’s future as a business case is something Peters has focussed on for over a decade. But at 58, it’s also something he recognizes younger chiefs will bring to fruition.

"The real challenge is to the generations that follow us," Peters told an In-SHUCK-ch general assembly in January, proposing a seven-generation plan focussed on lawmaking, justice, management and administration that "allows (us) to look at ourselves differently," he said.

"Sovereignty begins with our selves," he said. "Not B.C., not Canada, not the rest of the world, but ourselves – we can control our nation."