Defending Hereditary Rights: Struggle of the First Nations in British Columbia


TML Weekly, 3 October 1999

Over the past several weeks the West Bank First Nation led by their chief, Ron Derrickson, have been waging a struggle to assert control over the resources of their hereditary lands. An Interior Alliance uniting the West Bank band with three other bands of the Okanagan people has taken a united stand in defence of the right of the West Band to cut trees on their hereditary lands without seeking a permit from the Minister of Forests. After several days of logging their lands, they agreed to stop cutting in order to hold face to face meetings with the NDP Minister of Forests, Dave Zirnhelt. That meeting took place Wednesday September 15. At the meeting, the Minister arrogantly asserted that the Aboriginal people have no right to harvest forests on their lands, and reduced the entire political matter to a law and order issue. Chief Derrickson and most others attending the meeting walked out in anger to protest against the 19th century colonial stand of the Minister, and declared they would resume logging. In addition they took out advertisements in major newspapers explaining their stand to the public, stating they were organizing an international boycott of B.C. forestry companies who they accuse of "destroying forest resources with destructive logging of aboriginal title lands without our consent."

Bill Lightbaun, former president of the United Native Nations (representing Native people not living on reserves), a senior Aboriginal statesman and Kootenay elder, attended the September 15 meeting. He gave the following interview to TML following the meeting.

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TML: What was the central issue in the Summit meeting of Chiefs meeting in Vancouver September 15?

Bill Lightbaun: The Summit Conference had been convened to deal with the question of the provincial and federal government's role in not dealing with the Aboriginal people in a proper fashion at the treaty table. It was mainly of the chiefs involved in the treaty process at this time.

TML: How many chiefs were there?

BL: We're probably talking about a hundred and twenty chiefs in total in that process. Those people have become very concerned with the stonewall they've run up against in the treaty process. Also it is based upon the position that has been taken by the provincial and federal government in regard to the resources, and they're very concerned about the fact that particularly the provincial government has ignored the directions that have come down from the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw (December 1997) making it clear to the citizens of this country that the Aboriginal peoples have a vested interest in the resources on their land, and that the provincial government must sit down and discuss and get agreement with various nations before they issue any resource development, permits and those kind of things. The provincial government has done just the opposite. They've issued permits as quickly as they can. The process is supposed to be going on in terms of negotiating over those very resources, and the frustration has developed to the point that when the West Bank Band decided that they were no longer going to wait on the provincial government to negotiate in a proper fashion rather than in the totally inexcusable process that they've been involved in, totally dishonest with no integrity whatsoever on behalf of the governments at these treaty tables. They said the heck with you, we're going to go to the woods and cut our trees. They proceeded to do that and they've been at it for almost two weeks.

TML: How did the chiefs respond to their action?

BL: It brought all of the chiefs at the Summit at the meeting together in support of the West Bank band, and their logging initiative there. I don't think that the West Bank people want to be loggers. I think they wanted to make a very clear point that the provincial government was not dealing fairly and honestly with the Aboriginal nations in this province in terms of negotiating treaties.

TML: What has the Forestry Ministry's response been to the logging?

BL: They have issued a statement to the effect that the West Bank Aboriginal people are breaking the law because they don't have a permit from the provincial government to cut down all those trees. The provincial government didn't issue them a permit, and they've declared that those threes they cut down are "hot", and on top of that the response of the Minister Dave Zirnhilt was that he would not talk to the West Bank Band unless they stopped cutting down trees, and he said he was not going to negotiate with them with a gun to his head. So they called his bluff. They stopped the logging, and they informed the Minister of Forests that they've stopped cutting. That they preferred to have negotiations. So they set up a meeting at 1:30 Wednesday at the Minister's office in Vancouver, and a lot of supporters went with the West Bank members, including the National Chief, Phil Fontaine, I might add. They made him the spokesperson to open the meeting, and to introduce the topics and those kinds of things, and he did a very good job of that. There were supporters from all around the province. I would say there were somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 odd chiefs as well as a whole lot of other supporters who were representatives of various Aboriginal groups around the province in support of the West Bank people in their ongoing dispute with the provincial government.

The response of the Minister was blatant. It was unbelievable that he would have the audacity to sit there and suggest that they had already given the West Bank people the option to cut down 2000 cubic metres of timber. The Chief asked what are we talking about 2000 metres, when in fact annually you take 7.1 million cubic metres out of our territory every single year. What are you talking about throwing at us 2000 square metres. That's a joke. We're not interested in that.

Zirnhilt then raised the question well you could always plug in to the small business component which is seven per cent of all the timber available in British Columbia put into the small business component. You can always plug into there, and what you can't do yourselves you can always get partners. That was so insulting that at that point Ron Derrickson (West Bank Chief) got up and made a strong speech. One person made the point that our people are at the table all right, underneath the table, and every once in a while a few crumbs fall off that table and this is what our people have to survive on. And we're sick and tired of that. We intend to issue our own permits to ourselves for the timber and we intend to continue to cut. He informed the minister that his people are going back into the woods tomorrow and they are going to continue to cut. And they had the full support of those Nations not at the negotiating table.

TML: How do you assess the situation that is developing?

BL: I've given you the facts about the meeting but it doesn't really address the climate that is developing. All the Aboriginal peoples in this province now have reached the point where they aren't going to take it any more. That's the historical event that is going to go down in history. It has brought all our people together who were not only not talking to each other, but were confronting each other on the basis of the so-called treaty making process. People in that meeting were well represented from both sides, and they committed themselves publicly in that meeting to supporting each other. This is the new day that is dawning. There is no question about it. From today on you will find that the Aboriginal people are organized in support of each other, and we will stand together, and begin to make decisions again together again. To me this is the most important part of what happened.

The other thing that I think is really important is that not only was Zirnhilt sitting there, he also had his Assistant Deputy Minister, Patrick O'Rourke. O'Rourke made a public statement a few days ago denigrating the intelligence of the West Bank Indians thinking they had the right to go out there and break the law and cut down those trees. The statement that he made, as he was quoted in the media anyway, and we all know what the media is like. He sat there next to the minister through that whole thing, and I can tell you he was getting a little bit nervous because of the attitude of the Minister when he was trying to suggest that we had no rights, which was basically what he was trying to say with his remarks that we can "plug into this program and that", that there are "rules and regulations" and you have to obey those rules and regulations. He was very arrogant.

The end result was that it created an explosion in there, and many individuals there called a spade a spade and really lambasted him. They raised how the government has treated our people and they just never let up on him. I left at that point. I followed Ron Derrickson, the West Band Chief out of the meeting. He walked out and a lot of others did too. Some of the people stayed behind thinking they might be able to come into some sort of arrangement, that some future meetings might bear some fruit. I personally don't think that's possible, and I think they're wasting their time and are almost insulting themselves. We should have all walked together, but that's just my opinion. I might be wrong.

TML: What about allies for the Aboriginal cause among the woodworkers, among the citizenry at large?

BL: The prospects are very very good to tell you the honest truth. I don't think there is anyone in this province that could possibly consider the system and the process that is going on is worthwhile, or is beneficial to the workers, which includes the forestry workers and the other workers in this province. The benefits are not going to the people. The benefits are going out of this province in terms of the wealth that comes from the resources. So the process and the system today are unacceptable , and I believe the Aboriginal nations in the province are on the leading edge of breaking that ground and putting in place a system and a process that is more receptive to the citizens of this province, particularly our people.

TML: Was the take over of Mac-Millan Bloedel by Weyerhaeuser raised in the meeting?

BL: It was, but in passing, that the control of the forests were going out of the hands of British Columbia into the hands of foreigners. It was not an issue that was at that table.

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