The In-SHUCK-ch's road to reconciliation
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.