That is the message from the chief of the Okanagan Indian Band as local municipalities look to complete a deal to purchase the old CN Rail line for $22 million.
Chief Byron Louis says about 20 kilometres of the old CN Rail line from Oyama to Coldstream is land that belongs to Okanagan Indian Band and rightfully, should not have been up for sale by CN.
“We’ve never surrendered our territory and it’s never been legally taken away so we still hold title to our land,” said Louis.
“One of the things we have warned (the municipalities) is buyer beware. That land is not clear title.”
According to Louis, the land was set aside as a reserve in 1877 before it was taken back by the government of the day and given to ranchers.
Louis says when CN Rail was given the land to run a rail line through, it was on the condition the land would be returned to the native band when it was not in use as a railway.
“The reserve has been set aside and is privately held by us. Every last band member owns an interest in it. It’s privately held land so if people just walk in and think they can do whatever they want, that is trespassing.”
The municipalities invited the Okanagan Indian Band to be part of the corridor purchase process but Louis declined and maintains the band’s position is it legally owns the land.
“What they are doing is taking a wait and see approach, but they are taking it at their own peril,” he said.
“We identified what our position is and that is that claim was never surrendered (by the band). That has been our position since the 1880s and we haven’t wavered from it.”
The band has forwarded the issue to legal counsel for further review and action.
“We offered the mayors the opportunity to back our claim,” said Louis.
“First, it would have helped to build much needed bridges between parties and cultures and second, it would have saved the taxpayers $22 million.”
Lake Country Mayor James Baker defends the purchase of the line and says the band’s claim will have to be dealt with as the process moves along.
“It’s really not local government that should be dealing with this because it’s a federal and provincial deal,” he said.
“This will be something that needs to be settled before we can do anything much with the rail line. The courts have pointed out time and again that there is underlying aboriginal title to those lands that have not been settled by a treaty.”
Baker expects the issue may eventually be dealt with in a cash settlement with the band or a possible land swap.
According to Baker, another two kilometre stretch of the rail line that passes through part of the Okanagan Indian Band reserve near Duck Lake wasn’t included in the deal to purchase the land.
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