Native protestors arrested at Interior ski resort 

The Sun Peaks land-claim saga continues

B.C. First Nations asserting their rights over traditional lands has been an ongoing issue throughout the province’s history, says a UBC political science professor.

"It’s not anything new," Paul Tennant told Pique Newsmagazine . "These disputes go back more than 100 years and that has left some uncertainty."

Four native activists were arrested July 23 at Sun Peaks Resort by Kamloops RCMP and their protest camp, known as the Skwelkwek’welt Protection Centre, was dismantled.

About 15 RCMP constables made the arrests as a crowd of 50 native protestors demonstrated their support from the sidelines. The arrests were carried out without confrontation.

Members of the Neskonlith Indian band from Chase have now set up a new protest camp a few hundred metres down the road. The original camp had been there since last fall.

The Neskonlith are part of the eight-band Secwepewc – or Shuswap – First Nation.

Three of the activists were released from jail after signing an agreement to stay away from Sun Peaks. The fourth refused the deal and remains behind bars.

"The Interior First Nations – the Okanagan, Shuswap and Lillooet – are very principled people," said Tennant, who specializes in native politics, self-government and treaties.

Earlier this month Sun Peaks management was granted a court injunction to remove the natives.

The Secwepewc natives are opposed to the $70-million expansion of the ski resort that includes a 230-room hotel and conference centre, a townhome complex, an 18-hole golf course, the addition of two chairlifts and the development of ski terrain on a new mountain.

The Secwepewc claim the area has been used for traditional hunting, gathering and spiritual practices for thousands of years and insist that Sun Peaks is part of a reserve marked out in 1862.

Sun Peaks Resort is owned by the Japan-based Nippon Cable Co. Ltd. The company also owns 23 per cent of both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

The Sun Peaks arrests were not the first associated with ski areas in B.C. this summer.

Seven protesters were arrested July 5 after blockading the Duffey Lake Road between Pemberton and Lillooet. The group was demonstrating against the proposed Cayoosh ski resort.

Meanwhile, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip has said the Sun Peaks land-claim dispute could be headed towards a similar situation that occurred at Penticton’s Apex Mountain in 1994.

The Penticton Indian Band halted expansion at Apex by blockading the ski hill’s main access road, which ran through the band’s reserve. The ensuing media coverage drove off potential international investors until the ski area went bankrupt.

Tennant said the ski-resort disputes are a good indication of modern native land-claim tactics.

"The strategy of occupying land and roadblocks is a new phase," he said in an interview from his office on the Vancouver campus.

Earlier this week, B.C.’s First Nations Summit "war council" – made up of band chiefs from across province – threatened to blockade highways, railways and waterways if the new Liberal government goes ahead with a referendum on treaty negotiations.

The idea behind the threat is to create economic uncertainty in B.C.

A meeting was scheduled to take place this week in Victoria between native leaders and representatives from the federal Indian Affairs ministry and the provincial treaty commission. The outcome will likely decide what course of action the natives will take.

"The natives are being very explicit about their demands," said Tennant. "Negotiations are the best way to resolve these disputes."

The B.C. natives’ warning is part of a national attempt to pressure both levels of government into resolving a long list of native grievances.

Last week in Halifax, N.S., the Assembly of First Nations also threatened a national campaign of highway blockades if the federal government carries out its plan of overhauling the Indian Act.

But Tennant said B.C.’s native leaders will not rush into rash or short-sighted decisions.

"They are not firebrands," he said. "They are very thoughtful, responsible people."

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