Vern Shanoss wishes his people didn't have to choose between living away from their traditional territory and living in Third World conditions. The 57-year-old Samahquam Nation member says they deserve to have the same access to housing and job opportunities in their communities that many other Canadians enjoy.
"I'm tired of watching my people come home in caskets and in boxes," Shanoss told the Georgia Straight while walking near his home in Sachteen, a tiny community about 100 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. "I want them here."
It's a sentiment expressed up and down the lower Lillooet River Valley, home to the Samahquam, Skatin, and Douglas First Nations. Together, as the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, the three bands are negotiating a treaty with the federal and provincial governments. Negotiators say they could reach a final agreement by the end of the year.
Concluding a treaty is dependent on the governments of Canada and British Columbia making major commitments to improve the living conditions between Harrison and Lillooet lakes, according to Eppa, chief negotiator for the In-SHUCK-ch Nation. He warns that there won't be a treaty unless governments agree to build housing and improve the valley's poor infrastructure—removing barriers standing in the way of his people moving home and their pursuit of economic development.
"We'll continue to be a drain on the economy and we will continue to be a dependent people, until we have the resources to catch up and then to fully participate in the economic and social fabric of Canada," Eppa, also known as Gerard Peters, said in a Lonsdale Quay coffee shop. "When we have that, we will truly have resolved historical deficiencies to a point where, I think, Canada will and B.C. will and the In-SHUCK-ch Nation will have grown up together."
In 1993, the In-SHUCK-ch and N'Quatqua First Nations became the first party to file a statement of intent to join the B.C. treaty process. After the D'Arcy-based N'Quatqua left negotiations, the In-SHUCK-ch reentered talks in 2002. A year ago, the federal government signed an agreement-in-principle with the First Nation and the province, laying the groundwork for a final agreement.
If a treaty is implemented, the In-SHUCK-ch Nation will receive 14,577 hectares of land—three percent of its 476,943-hectare territory—and $21 million in cash. It will form a new government with constitutionally protected lawmaking and taxation powers, elected by citizens with defined rights. The Indian Act will no longer govern In-SHUCK-ch members, and those in the valley will reside on land owned by the nation in fee simple—the form of real estate familiar to homeowners—rather than on 18 reserves held by the Crown. The nation will relinquish any claims against the federal and provincial governments for past infringements of its aboriginal title, and, after a transition period, its citizens will lose their income-tax and sales-tax exemptions.
Trevor Proverbs, B.C.'s chief negotiator, noted that an In-SHUCK-ch final agreement would be similar to those ratified by the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth First Nations in 2007. Proverbs, who negotiated the Nisga'a treaty and the failed Lheidli T'enneh final agreement, said he doesn't think the federal election will affect the outcome of talks or the timing of a treaty.
"We're very close to concluding a final agreement," he said from his office in Victoria. "There's a few issues left that we have to deal with, as there are at any table where you're closing, but we're making good progress."
Both Proverbs and Eppa said a "handshake agreement" is possible in 2008. After the negotiators initial a treaty, In-SHUCK-ch members will vote on it in a referendum, likely a year later. If approved by a majority of members, it will go to B.C.'s legislature and the Canadian Parliament for ratification before taking effect.
Mark Milke, the author of Incomplete, Illiberal, and Expensive, a study of the treaty process published in July by the Fraser Institute, argues that although the agreements do bring some issues to a resolution, they don't provide finality and contain "race based" clauses. For instance, the University of Calgary political-science lecturer said, nonaboriginal residents living on treaty land won't have the same voting rights as the First Nation's members.
"You have excuses for this in every generation, under all sorts of justifications," Milke said from his Calgary home. "My view is that the justifications are never strong enough to go forward with these sorts of agreements."
When Chief Keith Smith imagines what his community will look like in 10 years, he sees many more than its 17 or so houses, along with a new firehall, a small school, a soccer field, and perhaps even a gymnasium. Regardless of the outcome of treaty talks, the Samahquam Nation leader is determined to raise the standard of living on his reserve and give members the opportunity to move home.
"We have a lot of plans," Smith said in his pickup truck in Baptiste Smith, at the southwest end of Little Lillooet Lake. "That's pretty much just what they are for now: plans."
A 2005 report, Transformation: From Myth to Reality, commissioned by Canada, B.C., and the In-SHUCK-ch, calls the First Nation's communities "as isolated as any one can find in Canada", noting that the reserves lack safe road access and land-line telephones and aren't connected to the power grid. Without cellphone coverage, residents who have them communicate by two-way radio.
One hundred and eighty-seven, or 20 percent, of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation's 933 members live on its reserves, while the rest live in Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, and elsewhere. In a survey conducted for the 2005 report, most members residing off-reserve cited housing and employment as reasons for doing so. Sixty-five percent of off-reserve respondents said they want to live in the valley.
"Despite being relatively close to the Lower Mainland and to the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, the lower Lillooet River Valley has been left to economically stagnate—a direct result of the lack of basic infrastructure," the report states.
Eppa asserted that "60 years of neglect" drove many of his people out of the territory. He's seeking a commitment from the federal government to build enough houses to enable the In-SHUCK-ch Nation to shelter a proportion of its population on treaty land comparable to that housed by nearby First Nations. (Sixty-eight percent of the Lil'wat Nation's members live on its reserves, while the Chehalis Indian Band houses 46 percent of its members.) That would take $96 million and up to 20 years to accomplish, but Canada has offered just $10 million, he said.
"I've signalled clearly from the beginning that unless we have catch-up, we're not going to have a treaty," Eppa, who lives in Abbotsford, said in a later interview.
As for the provincial government, Eppa is demanding that it upgrade the forest service roads that link the communities to the outside world. Floods and debris flows often cut off the narrow, winding gravel roads, built for logging trucks and power-line access. An August report by Hedberg and Associates Consulting Ltd. pegged the cost of improving the roads from Harrison Lake's west side to Highway 99 near Mount Currie—making them safe for year-round public use—at $27,257,370.
The In-SHUCK-ch Nation proposes the eventual construction of a two-lane paved highway from the Fraser Valley to Mount Currie. Dubbed the Sasquatch Trail, the route would provide an alternative to the Sea-to-Sky Highway.
"If you don't have proper access, even with a treaty settled, the future's still limited," said Scott Fraser, the B.C. New Democratic Party's aboriginal-relations critic, speaking on his cellphone from near Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands. "If there's true interest in reconciliation and economic benefit to the nation, then I think government should be listening to their argument."
Chuck Strahl, the federal minister of Indian affairs and the Conservative MP for Chilliwack–Fraser Canyon, didn't grant an interview request. Neither did Michael de Jong, B.C.'s minister of aboriginal relations, or Joan McIntyre, the Liberal MLA for West Vancouver–Garibaldi.
Terry Raymond, vice chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District and chair of the Union of B.C. Municipalities' First Nations relations committee, asserted that the federal government has an obligation to help First Nations struggling with housing. Stressing he was sharing only his personal views, Raymond—who is the local-government representative on the provincial negotiating team at the In-SHUCK-ch treaty table—said he thinks everyone should visit the lower Lillooet River Valley to see the living conditions there.
"When you think that just over the mountain, on the other side, people are living in million-dollar homes and everything—and then you get to that side, and they have problems getting hydro and they have no telephone and things like that—it just makes no sense," Raymond said from the Siska band office, south of Lytton. "No sense. And it's been that way for years."
As they watched the construction of a powerhouse and penstock corridor at Tipella Creek, Chief Don Harris and former chief Darryl Peters's pride was evident on their faces. Last year, the Douglas First Nation signed a participation agreement with Vancouver-based Cloudworks Energy Inc., which is building six run-of-river power projects around the head of Harrison Lake.
"We're getting ourselves ready to go either way," Harris said in the cafeteria of a work camp near Tipella. "Whether there's a treaty or not, we need our future set for ourselves."
The projects, scheduled for completion in two years, will help remove one of the greatest obstacles to economic development in the lower Lillooet River Valley. Although a 360-kilovolt power line has run down the valley since the 1950s, the main In-SHUCK-ch communities rely on expensive, unreliable, and polluting diesel generators. That should change in 2010, when two new substations are expected to hook up most of the communities to the electric grid, according to Eppa.
The negotiator said he thinks run-of-river projects and logging would kick-start economic activity in the valley while, in the long term, tourism and service-industry developments would provide jobs. (Eppa also said that if he is to recommend a final agreement, the provincial government must agree to make companies' water-licence applications in the territory "evaporate", so the First Nation can develop future power projects as the owner. Proverbs told the Straight that already-approved applications will stand.)
Chief Patrick Williams noted that some members are opposed to a treaty because they say the nation would be giving up its sovereignty as asserted in the 1911 Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe. But the Skatin First Nations leader said he's looking forward to the day his band doesn't have to apply to the federal government to build homes, expand its school, or log timber on its reserves. When the reserves become fee-simple treaty land, the nation itself will be responsible for approving projects and securing funding, such as mortgages.
"That's the one thing I like about it," Williams said, walking through Skatin, formerly known as Skookumchuck. "We'll be able to do our own thing rather than have our hands out to Indian Affairs all the time."
In her mother's log house in Sachteen, Eppa's 42-year-old daughter, Shelley Peters, said she hopes a treaty will bring more people home and attract businesses to the territory. She envisions members operating ecotourism outfits, and a gallery displaying the work of In-SHUCK-ch artists to visitors.
"There's weavers and cedar-basket makers and there's all sorts of artists in the valley here, but they don't have one central place here to show off their talent," Peters said. "That's my dream."
At Tsek, one of the In-SHUCK-ch's most important spiritual sites, cedar, sage, and tobacco smudge smouldered in an abalone shell as Peters's aunt, Sylvia Shanoss, sang the "Dream Song" in Ucwalmicwts and beat her hand drum. Vern Shanoss joined his wife, standing by four sacred yew trees that had been blessed by a medicine man. For a moment, she stopped drumming, and their voices soared in unison above the sound of the Lillooet River.
If a final agreement takes effect, the area around the hot springs at Tsek, also known as St. Agnes Well or Skookumchuck Hot Springs, will become treaty land. The federal government bought the private lot, northwest of Skatin, in 2007.
For Vern, the springs—a healing place—represent a "spearheading" of his people's moves to take control of their future while continuing to live off the land in the valley they've called home for thousands of years.
"They've done a fine job keeping us isolated on these tiny little reserves," he said. "It's time to blossom. I feel very optimistic. I've gone through a lot, but I feel very optimistic.
"We have so much to contribute. We have so much to share. We have so much to give, because of who we are. Nothing's lost—not the language, not the culture, not the land. We'll always be here."