By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
Special to the Nelson Star
In a show of unity around the table, Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) directors refused to provide a letter of support to the federal government on Thursday for a recent transfer of land in Fauquier to reserve status for the Westbank First Nation (WFN).
The basis for their decision was that the 1956 extinction of the Arrow Lakes/Sinixt First Nation by the federal government had been an error that needed to be reconciled.
The RDCK refusal follows a contentious public meeting held in mid-October in Fauquier, held at the RDCK’s request, to seek public comment on the land transfer.
The land in question is a 4.6 acre parcel at 7834 Starlight Road in Fauquier, which the WFN had purchased. The WFN had proposed a land exchange that would give the parcel reserve status, to make up for loss of reserve lands in Kelowna that they had forfeited for repairs to the WAC Bennett Bridge.
Plans for the Fauquier site include a 10-site campground for WFN private use. The WFN and other members of the Okanagan Nation Alliance have completed several similar land transfers in the Okanagan, but this was their first request to do so for lands in the Arrow Lakes Valley, an area that they say is part of their ancestral territory.
The Sinixt, declared extinct in Canada in 1956, have no rights under the Indian Act and cannot participate in any government discussions on land claims.
Recently, the tribe’s aboriginal right to hunt was re-instated in a March 27, 2017, decision by the Honourable Judge Lisa Mrozinski in R v Desautel. The judge said the Sinixt historic presence in a territory that stretches from Kettle Falls, Washington, to Revelsoke, B.C., is legitimate.
Paul Peterson, RDCK director for Area K (including Fauquier), proposed an alternative to providing a letter of support.
In a prepared statement, he asked that the RDCK send a letter requesting that all land transfers into reserve status be suspended in the regional district until such time as the issues around the 1956 extinction are resolved, including an acknowledgment and reversal of the “error” of extinction. The motion was seconded by several other directors.
Peterson explained to the other directors that federal officials had told him that refusal by the RDCK to endorse the land transfer would not stop it from happening. Nonetheless, Peterson said, “First Nations in B.C. have endured the greatest of atrocities. The extinction adds insult to injury. I cannot be part of that by endorsing this transfer.”
In the discussion that followed, director Andy Davidoff first suggested an amendment to Peterson’s motion: that it be vetted by staff and legal council. Director Rick Smith seconded this, but other directors opposed it, with many speaking out in full endorsement of the original motion by Peterson.
“The federal government has to change their position on [the extinction]. If there was a stronger way of doing this, I would support that, too,” said director Hans Cunningham.
Director Larry Binks shared his experience as a local government representative in the land claims process. “It’s very important for us to come together as a regional government to endorse the fact that this issues needs to be settled once and for all. The Sinixt sitting here listening [in the public gallery] are not even listed as official representatives in the land claims process. Our role as I see it is to support them to become recognized as people of Canada,” he added. “We need to support their return to society as recognized.”
RDCK Chair Karen Hamling expressed some concern that a statement made by the board about the government’s need to address the Sinixt extinction not offend the other tribes with claims to the territory in question.
Directors Ramona Faust, Stephen White and Leah Main all fully endorsed Peterson’s motion, which was put to a vote and passed unanimously.
“An official government body took the next step today,” said Sinixt representative Shelly Boyd after the meeting. “We know this extinction isn’t true. We need to keep following that thread of truth.”
Peterson’s motion reads as follows:
“That the RDCK send a letter to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada with a copy to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure requesting the federal government suspend granting reservation status to first nation communities within the traditional territory of the (Lakes People, Sinixt); AND FURTHER, that the federal government look into the possibility that the declaration that the 3,500 Sinixt people are extinct was indeed an error and that being the case, to start the process to establish what lands are actually Sinixt traditional territory.”