Okanagan First Nations believe they may be close to resolving an ongoing land titles dispute.
A B.C. Supreme Court ruling allows the Okanagan Indian Band to proceed with legal action and to openly question the provincial government’s decision-making authority on forested land when there has been no formal treaty signed with First Nations.
“If there is no co-operation (from the province), that only leaves us with one venue and that’s the court,” said Chief Byron Louis.
The dispute between both parties arose when the band began logging at Browns Creek, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, in 1999.
The band stated it had the right to harvest trees under aboriginal rights, but the Ministry of Forests issued a stop-work order and commenced a legal action to enforce the order.
Various court decisions in favour of the band and the government have occurred since that time, and the band blocked commercial logging in Browns Creek in 2009.
Louis says the band must protect its traditional rights, as well as the natural resources it believes are at risk from some logging practises.
“Water is front and centre. Anyone who questions what we’re doing, I tell them to go into the bush and look at the clearcuts,” he said.
“What’s the value of their house without water?”
Louis adds that band members have been part of the logging industry for generations and they want a seat at the table.
“Why would we stop economic development? What we’re concerned about is unsustainable development?”
Okanagan Nation Alliance officials are optimistic about the outcome of the pending legal case.
“The province of B.C. is in the awkward position of having to show how they came into title of Okanagan land and of course they’ve got nothing, no deed, no bill of sale, no treaty,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
Louis believes all Okanagan residents should have an interest in the case.
“Forty years of industrial logging within the Okanagan watersheds has affected water quality for native and non-native residents alike,” he said.
“As stewards of the land, we will ensure the healing of the forests and the restoration of the creeks that feed our lakes. This will improve the quality of life for all residents of the Okanagan territory.”