A hundred years ago indigenous people traveled for many miles by any means possible to address the land question in British Columbia. On August 25, 1910, chiefs from Secwepemc, Okanagan and Nlaka’pamux met at Spences Bridge and wrote the “Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.”
On June 11 this year, the leadership of those three nations met at Spences Bridge to reaffirm and rededicate that Memorial to a prime minister who read their grievance and promised to meet with them, but never did.
When Laurier received the document, written in English by James Teit, he was on the campaign trail for re-election. He made the promised but lost the election. Sir Robert Borden replaced him, and ignored the chiefs’ demands for redress, for treaties and certainty.
Laurier’s Memorial asked for a Canada that could be “great and good,” for all the people, working together. But what ensued instead was a bitter legacy of denial, legislated discrimination, criminalization and aggressive assimilation attempts on the parts of British Columbia and Canada.
That brings us to today.
“Today is a day that we rededicate ourselves, all the people and all the chiefs, to that single purpose: to address the land question,” said Raymond Phillips, an Nlaka’pamux lawyer who chaired the events of the day.
Every community from the three signatory nations had their chief or a descendant of the original signer represent them on the rededication. Chiefs from Tahltan, Gitxsan, Tsilhqot’in, St’át’imc, Sto:lo, Carrier and Kwagwelth signed a testament to their allegiance with the demands of the three. Hundreds of people signed their names to witness the ceremonies and the Memorial.
“I call this our Magna Carta, our Charter,” spoke Dr. Ron Ignace of Skeetchestn, Secwepemc. Dr. Ignace delivered a keynote address, illustrating the connections between the peoples’ sptakws, or teaching stories, and the meaning of the document written to repair the relationship between the indigenous nations and the newcomers.
“If these people come here and want to live in our house, then we will live like brothers,” the Memorial reads. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
“I was touched by the patience and statesmanship of the Chiefs of 1910. I noted that many of them were born before the first white man ever set foot in our lands,” said Dr. Ignace.
The new arbour at the confluence of the Nicola and Thomson Rivers was full to overflowing with over 350 guests. At this place at Spences Bridge many important meetings were had taken place between chiefs from all directions in the early decades of last century, until such meetings were made illegal in 1927.
The arbour is a new building on the site and was designed by Nkemcin member Lynda Ursaki. Her chief explained the building is “to welcome all the nations, the Allied Tribes, that you have a home here to come and honour your people that struggled for your nations here.”
Chief David Walkem of the Cook’s Ferry Band, Nlaka’pamux, was the key organizer for the dedication of the arbour, named the Chief Tetlenitsa Outdoor Theatre.
Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Okanagan spoke on behalf of his nation, offering Chief Walkem a painted hand drum. “Today’s work will go on for another hundred years, and another: our grandchildren and those yet unborn will witness our signatures, and Chief, I don’t think you will ever know how important your work here is.”
For the Secwepemc, Shuswap Nation Tribal Council spokesperson Chief Wayne Christian waited for Wolverine, William Ignace, to first make his comments to the people: “Either step up or step down. We’re getting tired, fighting for our rights, keeping the legal argument for our people.”
Chief Christian spoke to the pain of the ones who are losing that fight. “As I listened to the words of the Memorial, I could feel the pain of a hundred years of being denied as a people, of all the people that have died of alcohol and drugs in the streets of Vancouver, Kamloops and Prince George,” he said.
“We’re coming together again as one. Now it is our job to prepare for the next hundred years. I say to the provincial government, they own no land, they have no territory and no jurisdiction in our lands. We must prepare to tell not BC, not Canada, but the world — that we are a people, and it’s time they recognize that.”
Harry Lali, MLA for the Fraser-Nicola electorate, attended. He was invited to speak.
“In re-reading this document, I have to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Of all the grievances written in this Memorial, there is not one of them that has been resolved,” he said.
As Dr. Ignace pointed out, “We are still waiting for that equal treatment to this day, and the only way we’re going to get it is by standing together and fighting together.”
All were invited to three more gatherings to stand together: the Secwepemc Gathering on July 24 and 25; the language conference being hosted in the first week of August in Okanagan territory, and the St’át’imc 100th Anniversary of the Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe in May of 2011.
Kevin Loring and a small band of players brought the Memorial to life for the gathering. Loring, a Governor-General Award-winning playwright, has roots in Lytton.
Chief Tetlenitsa signed the 1910 Memorial, and his great niece Pearl Hewitt, an elected Councilor at Cook’s Ferry, addressed the Gathering: “we’re carrying our language and our culture forward.”
A new song written by Hewitt for the occasion was sung for the first time on the day. She danced in a silver willow cape and hat that she made to show the beauty of her language and culture, and how it is foremost in her mind.
Jim Billy welcomed the people to his father’s land, and gave thanks for the dedication of the future “George Stage Billy traditional interpretive garden,” which will surround the Theatre.
Wendy Wickwire is a student of the life of James A. Teit. She spoke about how his life was less about anthropology, which he is now known for in Canada, and more about hunting and guiding with the people, speaking Nlaka’pamuxcin, and being committed to the politics of the moment — not records of the past. Teit was a translator of huge significance, in both quality and quantity — he wrote down a number of the nations’ eloquent Declarations a hundred years ago, he wrote letters, and translated at meetings with the colonial politicians.
Acknowledgement to the major sponsors of the new arbour, including Highland Valley Copper, the NDI Trust, CP and CN Rail lines and all the nearby Bands and community fundraisers was made with presentations of miniature dip nets by children from the community. The buckskin “ribbon” was cut by Elders and children, symbolizing the continuity of the people between centuries.
Kerry Coast publishes The St’át’imc Runner newspaper.