From Gold Rush to Ski Rush

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A look behind the Sun Peaks protest.

On July 23, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested four native protesters. The apprehensions were the latest chapter in the drama unfolding at the Sun Peaks ski resort in British Columbia. Despite the arrests, protestors vowed to continue occupying two protest camps near the resort, with the promise of more camps and civil disobedience to come.

The history of this dispute can be traced back to the 1858 Fraser River gold rush. American miners began flooding the area, often coming into dispute with the Shuswap people living along the Thompson River, the area surrounding present-day Kamloops. To appease the natives and keep them from killing the arrogant Americans - whom they greatly outnumbered at the time - the colonial governor, Sir James Douglas, had the chiefs mark out territory to be set aside for reserves.

In 1862, Chief Neskonlith marked out the land he wanted. William Cox, a gold commissioner, made a rough map of the area. This is how the Neskonlith Douglas Reserve was established. Present-day Sun Peaks sits in the middle of this territory.

Trouble is, Douglas retired as governor in 1864 without establishing an official procedure to create reserves like Neskonlith's. Douglas' successor for land policy in the colony was Joseph Trutch.

"I think they are the ugliest and laziest creatures I ever saw," Trutch once wrote, summing up his feelings about B.C.'s indigenous population.

Trutch was the archetypical colonialist. He saw Aboriginal people as an impediment to settlement and the establishment of civilization in B.C. Writing in 1865, Trutch observed that, "the claims of the Indians over tracts of land, on which they assume to exercise ownership, but of which they make no real use, operate very materially to prevent settlement and cultivation."

Trutch sent Walter Moberly, a colonial surveyor, to the Thompson to look into the matter. Moberly apparently met Chief Neskonlith, and was told that the natives claimed the lands because the chief had placed the stakes himself. Based on Moberly's report, however, Trutch wrote that the Thompson reserves were "entirely disproportionate to the numbers or requirements of the Indian tribes," and the land "should be placed in possession of white settlers as soon as practicable." Trutch reduced the Neskonlith reserve and placed an announcement in the October 1866 Government Gazette indicating that the land was now open for settlement.

The establishment of the Neskonlith reserve and its subsequent reduction were all done without a single treaty being signed, a practice that had been carried elsewhere in Canada. When B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, Clause 13 of the Terms of Union stated, without any hint of irony, that the Canadian government's management of Indian lands would be "as liberal as that hitherto pursued by the British Columbia Government."

In 1961, a ski resort was established on Tod Mountain. The business was bought by a Japanese multinational in 1992 and renamed Sun Peaks. Since then, Nippon Cable have poured millions of dollars into developing the resort into a year-round, world-class destination that would undoubtedly like to eventually compete with Whistler-Blackcomb.

To the native people who live in the old Neskonlith Douglas Reserve, they have never legally given up their land. B.C.'s Aboriginal leaders have been pushing for an answer to the land question since the late-nineteenth century. Petitions to Victoria, Ottawa and London before World War One went nowhere. The federal government became so tired of hearing about these land claims that a 1927 amendment to the Indian Act - not repealed until 1951 - made it virtually impossible to raise money or hire legal counsel to continue.

This history - mixed with B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's insistence on holding a province-wide referendum on treaties - means that the land question and protests like the one at Sun Peaks will not go away soon or quietly. Sun Peaks' expansion is this century's version of the 1858 Gold Rush.

Todd Lamirande is the Vancouver Correspondent for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. He is also the former editor of The First Perspective, a national Aboriginal newspaper.

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