By Lloyd Dolha
Backed by AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, UBCIC President Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit and Chief Fabian Alexis met with federal Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott and BC Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister Tom Christianson to discuss the status of the first nation’s historical Commonage Reserve specific claim.
“It was a definite study in contrasts,” said Chief Alexis. “Our Friday afternoon meeting with provincial minister Tom Christianson was short and decisive while our Friday evening meeting with federal minister Andy Scott was lengthy and inconclusive.”
“Minister Christianson was quick to state British Columbia’s clear intention to remain at the bargaining table,” commented Chief Alexis.
“He even went so far to say that he would personally contact federal Minister Scott in order to strongly encourage Canada to do likewise.”
The high-level meeting between Minister Christianson and Scott and the aboriginal leadership took place in Kelowna on November 25 in the closing hours of the historic First Minster’s Meeting.
The chief noted that the meaningful consultation endorsed by the province was preferable to lengthy litigation and confrontation that may arise from Canada’s position on their historical grievance.
“In contrast,” continued the Okanagan chief, “while Minister Scott acknowledged our sense of frustration and betrayal, and stated his desire to regain our trust, he did not commit to stay at the negotiation table.”
Okanagan claim 130 years old
The Commonage Reserve specific claim involves the outright theft of 28,000 acres of prime Okanagan ranch and waterfront property that was originally set aside for Okanagan Indian band some 130 years ago.
The Okanagan Commonage Reserve was set apart for the Okanagan Indian band in 1877 by the federal/provincial Joint Reserve Commission. Soon after the Commonage Reserve was created, local white settlers lobbied the commission for the removal of the 28,000 acres of prime reserve land from the band in the interests of the settlement community.
Following secret clandestine meetings between Premier William Smithe and Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada purported to “relinquish” the band’s interest in the valuable reserve land.
The federal and provincial governments of-the-day purposely kept the Okanagan band in the dark about the unscrupulous negotiations and to this day, the Okanagan Indian band has never been compensated for the loss of the reserve land.
The Okanagan Indian band leadership was angered in late October when negotiators for the federal government withdrew from the specific claim negotiations.
Chief Alexis met with federal negotiators who explained the position Canada adopted in light of a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding when reserves were created in British Columbia, as well as the legal limitations of claims against the federal government.
In Wewaykum, the Supreme Court found that reserves in the province were not legally created until 1938, whereas the usurping of valuable Commonage Reserve lands took place in the late 1800s.
Federal negotiators confirmed that a letter terminating negotiations had not yet seen the letter and was not aware of its contents.
The Okanagan Indian band leadership is further incensed by the fact that five years ago, they met with then Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault, accepted their claim for negotiation and apologized for taking 11 years to review their specific claim.
Province’s largest claim
The band’s Commonage Reserve claim is believed to be the largest claim submitted under Canada’s specific claim process in the history of the province. Conservative, order-of-magnitude estimates value the claim at close to three-quarters of a billion dollars.
“The one positive thing we did get from Minister Scott was a commitment ‘not to sign off’ on any recommendations from his staff to end negotiations on the Commonage claim,” said Chief Alexis.
The Okanagan Indian band has the support of all First Nations in the pro.
The First Nation still has the option of suing the federal government over the loss of the lands in a test case, but the Okanagan band prefers a negotiated solution.
“The test case is an option we will be pursuing,” said Chief Alexis.
“But the prospect of having our negotiations put on hold while Ottawa does yet another policy review is worrisome and we need to be clear we have very little patience for further delays.”
“The Commonage, which is Indian Reserve #9, was taken from us without our knowledge or consent. We were never compensated. We have been waiting a very long time, 130 years, to have our claim resolved. We are determined to negotiate a full and fair restitution for the loss of this land.”