VANCOUVER – Southwestern British Columbia’s St’at’imc Chiefs Council is threatening to block a highway and rail line and “embarrass” private companies and the next provincial government over trespasses on its traditional territory.
Chief Garry John said he wants the next government in Victoria to deal with the issue urgently and he plans to raise the topic, triggered by a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision, at a public event today in the community of Lillooet.
In her Feb. 7, 2013 ruling, Madam Justice Loryl Russell found the Douglas Trail Road, also known as the Highline Road and which runs through the band’s traditional lands, is a public highway.
Local resident Wolfgang Skutnik filed the action, which the First Nation opposed.
“I guess the bottom line is we want to let people know that the St’at’imc are very reasonable people,” said John in an interview. “We’ve tried to be good neighbours for the past, since point of contact, I guess, and we don’t want to have to do things this way.”
“We’d much rather sit down at the table with the next government that’s coming in.”
The conflict is not unique. The Squamish Nation and Lil’Wat Nation launched a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court Wednesday over the provincial government’s approval of Whistler, B.C.’s Official Community Plan.
The First Nations wants the court to quash the plan because they were not consulted, a right they argue they have, as they have “unextinguished aboriginal title and rights” over Crown lands covered by the document.
At issue for the St’at’imc, though, are the Sea to Sky Highway, formally known as Highway 99, the Canadian National Railway line, and a Telus fibre-optic line.
Representative from CN and the provincial government were unable to comment by publication.
John said CN’s main line runs north through the middle of the First Nation’s territory, starting near Whistler.
Land was taken from the First Nation without any consultation or accommodation along northern sections of Highway 99, he added, and Telus runs its line on BC Hydro poles but doesn’t necessarily have an agreement with each of the First Nations’ communities.
However, Jim MacArthur, an adviser to the chiefs’ council, said Telus has done a good job recently of negotiating leases on reserves.
Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Telus, said the issue is “baffling” for the company, which has a good working relationship with the First Nation, and in one case, the company was in a community just weeks ago to celebrate an Internet broad-band connection.
He said the company has permits from several of the First Nations’ communities to run its fibre optics over the land and is currently sitting down with chiefs to work on a larger agreement for infrastructure on the traditional territory.
“It’s critical infrastructure in small communities, he said. “It provides tremendous economic development opportunities, education opportunities, health-care opportunities,” he said. “It really makes a real difference in people’s lives.”
He said the company is passionate about connecting remote First Nations to the infrastructure.
Meantime, Scott Fraser, the New Democrat’s aboriginal affairs critic and a candidate in the riding of Alberni, didn’t comment on the specific infrastructure issue, but he said the party has a larger action plan for First Nations.
He said the party has committed to building a government-to-government relationship with First Nations, and within the first 100 days, NDP Leader Adrian Dix and the minister responsible for aboriginal issues would meet with the First Nations Leadership Council and all chiefs.
“I mean a four year action plan: let’s lay it out, let’s lay out an action plan to move us where we’ve got to be to have that strong government to government relationship,” said Fraser.
If he were minister, Fraser said he’d commit to meet with the St’at’imc even sooner.
“We want to get out of the pattern of litigation that just doesn’t seem to end and the conflict that never seems to end,” said Fraser.
According to the B.C. Supreme Court ruling, the Douglas Trail Road is 24-kilometres long and connects the communities of D’Arcy and Seton Portage.
The private BC Electric Company, a precursor to BC Hydro, built the road in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the route overlaid sections of a trail developed in the late 19th century, states the ruling.
The provincial government expropriated all of the shares of the BC Electric Company in 1961, and with the BC Power Commission, was amalgamated into the BC Hydro and Power Authority.
The Pacific Great Eastern Railway also built a right-of-way over the trail between 1912 and 1915, states the ruling.
Russell found a variety of groups, including BC Hydro, BC Rail, loggers, residents and tourists, used the road, which is an “essential access” to nearby communities, and enough public money has been spent on it.