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Cheam blockade endorsed by leadership.

Tensions are building slowly yet surely in south-central British Columbia as members of the Sto:lo Nation's Cheam Band block a road to protest what Cheam Chief June Quipp calls government stalling in dealing with her people's legal rights on their traditional territory.

At one level, the fight is about a provincial government plan to protect wilderness areas in the province through its Protected Areas Strategy. The problem is that some of the lands the province has decided to protect are under claim by the Cheam band. Negotiations broke down when, Quipp said, the provincial negotiators arrived with a clear agenda of stalling and bad faith bargaining.

As Chief Quipp wages a very public war of words with the provincial government, specially trained band members who recently completed a six-week course in unarmed combat are blocking a back road that runs along the bank of the Fraser River to Chilliwack. Since April 14, the battle fatigue clad members who call themselves the West Coast Warrior Society have blocked the side-road. It's a gesture to show the band means business. If things escalate, and Quipp says they will if there isn't some progress soon, then the warriors will be asked to take on a far riskier assignment -- erecting and manning toll booths on Highway 9, the only main highway connecting towns and villages in this region where the mountains make it impossible to find an alternative route.

The protest has attracted national attention and the support of the major Native political organizations at the provincial and national levels.

On April 17, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) declared its support for the Cheam people. The next day, the Assembly of First Nations executive council, including National Chief Phil Fontaine, passed a resolution in support of the roadblock. Since they were meeting in Vancouver, the executive council then travelled to the Cheam territory in a show of support and solidarity.

"What is happening to the Cheam band is taking place across the province," said UBCIC president Stewart Phillip. "The province is denying the very existence of Aboriginal title despite the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark Delgamuukw decision. We understand their frustration and we intend to provide all the support we can to their struggle to have a fair negotiation process. At this time we offer our unconditional support to the Cheam band."

In this province, unlike most provinces in Canada, the colonizers for the most part, did not enter into treaties with Indigenous peoples. The Delgamuukw decision, rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada on Dec. 11, 1997, found that Aboriginal title exists in areas where treaties did not extinguish the rights of Indigenous peoples. The court also urged governments to negotiate with First Nation governments regarding ways to share legitimate legal title to such lands. Native leaders in the province say the provincial government has done little or nothing to comply with the law of the land in this regard. Phillip said the Native leadership is fed up with the province's stalling and he's predicting a long, hot summer in British Columbia.

Observers remember that newly-elected British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh was the cabinet minister in charge when a standoff at Gustafsen Lake turned into a shooting war between Shuswap traditionalists and the RCMP a few hours drive to the north in 1995. They are watching closely to see if force will be employed to break up this demonstration.

National Chief Phil Fontaine called on the premier to act soon, and in good faith, to bring the matter to a resolution.

"The situation has to be dealt with quickly, without further delay," he said. "Premier Dosanjh has both the ability and authority to work with the Cheam people in order to settle this issue to ensure the community can utilize the resources available to sustain a viable economic base for its community. The alternative can only be one of confrontation and unnecessary hardship."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dale Lovick said he won't negotiate until the blockades come down. Quipp responded by saying that the blockade went up because the government negotiations were a farce and an insult. As of April 19, there was no resolution in sight.
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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:May 1, 2000
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