First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Ts'Peten (Gustafsen Lake), 2004. Photo: Gerard van Parreren


Ts'peten standoff with Wolverine (right), 1995.
Photo: anon



Ts'Peten (Gustafsen Lake) is located in the homeland of the people of Stswecem'c / Xgat'tem: Canoe Creek Band. The notorious "Indian War" at Ts'Peten began with an occupation and ended 31 days later, on 17 September 1995, with the surrender and arrest of fourteen indigenous sovereignists and four non native supporters. A leader was the 65 year old Wolverine (Jones William Ignace), a member of Adams Lake Indian Band (left). To end the First Nations standoff, a huge paramilitary operation was launched. Said to be the largest in Canadian history, it included 400 officers, nine armored personnel carriers, two surveillance airplanes, five helicopters and an unbelievable 77,000 rounds of ammunition.

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Following a long 13 month trial, Wolverine was sentenced to prison. After four years of incarceration, he was released on 4 February 1999 (right). Listen to Wolverine speaking on 28 July 2002 during a Native Youth Movement Freedom Tour: Lies and State Repression (7MB). Watch a video of Wolverine lecturing at Globalization Studies (Lethbridge University), 25 February 2004: The Wolverine (164MB).

References: Stephen Samuel, Wolverine's War (1996); Gustafsen Lake (Wikipedia); Ts'Peten Archives (documents, news articles and press releases up to 1999 archived by Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty); Janice G. A. E. Switlo, Gustafsen Lake: Under Siege (1997); Bruce Clark, Justice in Paradise (1999); John Boncore Hill, From Attica To Gustafsen Lake (2001); Wolferine, et. al. The Gustafsen Lake Crisis: Statements From Ts'Peten Defenders (2001); Sandra Lambertus, Wartime Images, Peacetime Wounds (2004).


Wolverine, 4 February 1999.
Photo: Jason Payne


Standoff at Ts'Peten, 1995.
Photo: Mark van Manen

See Wolverine (right) in the video filmed in 1995 at Ts'Peten: Sundance (ChristieBooks). According to St'át'imc Chief Saul Terry, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and a respected indigenous leader, "The positions expressed by the sundancers on their nations' sovereignty and aboriginal title and rights are not 'extremist.' They are shared by many Indian peoples across this province. BC is unceded Indian land. Our nations' ownership of their respective territories (our Aboriginal Title) has never been extinguished. We are not 'squatters' or trespassers in our homelands" 28 August 1995, Statement on the Standoff.


"Because of the success of police propagandists in publicly demonizing some of the most determined hard - liners in the Aboriginal sovereignty movement, a wall of impunity has been created to protect officials who assaulted the integrity of the entire body politic by abusing Crown power in our own dirty little Indian war. As long as there is the perception that a few radical Indians were wrongdoers, rather than some of Canada's most important institutions, the fuller meaning of this spectacularly telling episode in recent national history will probably never come fully to light" Anthony Hall, on Wartime Images by S. Lambertus, Canadian Historical Review (2005).

Wolverine, 1995. (Click for video)
Screenshot: "Sundance"

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Many contend that the violent Ts'Peten standoff was the result of a crude government "smear and disinformation" campaign orchestrated to conceal from the public and leave unaddressed the fundamental issue of the leasing and selling of First Nations land without consultation or consent. The Ts'Peten standoff delineated the rift within indigenous communities between sovereigntists who hold that no colonial government or court holds jurisdiction over unceded aboriginal land and supporters of the Indian Act band council system set up to engage with the government. Terry Glavin describes how the standoff was sparked by the arrest of two native fishermen on the Fraser River, near the bridge to the Gang Ranch (right). See his article "How the Circus Came to Gustafsen Lake," 14 November 1995: Albion Monitor.


Fraser River and Gang Ranch bridge.
Photo: Flickr


"Trail to the Sun Dance." Painting by M. Thornton, c. 1940.
Photo: BC Archives


Ts'Peten was the site of Sun Dance ceremonies during the summers from 1988 to 1995. Those who took part claimed they had an indigenous right to meet there, on unceded Indian land. The Sun Dance tradition originated among the Plains Indians as a ceremony to celebrate the renewal of nature but it became also a time to gather and to heal and gain spiritual strength.

Sun Dance practitioners were persecuted by the government of Canada and parts of the ceremony were prohibited by law when an amendment to the Indian Act was passed in 1884 which included a banning of the Potlatch ceremony, an important form of traditional government. This punitive law was not rescinded until 1951. At the same time, non native artists such as Mildred Thornton romanticized the Sun Dance as a picturesque native tradition associated with teepees (left).

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Sun Dance. Painting by George Catlin.
Source: North American Indians, 1857

"Making a Brave," Alberta, 31 July 1886.
Photo: postcard (Boorne & May)


Sioux Sun Dance. Engraving by G. Catlin.
Source: North American Indians, 1857

One of the first artists to illustrate the Sun Dance was George Catlin (left and above). These engravings were published in his best selling book: Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1857) which was widely sold in the US and Europe. He documented the "wildest and most remarkable tribes now existing" on the western frontier from 1830 to 1836 in order "to rescue from oblivion" their appearances and customs. See the Smithsonian exhibition: George Catlin.

Later white photographers sensationalized the Sun Dance as a display of self mutilation, selling their products as popular postcards. An example is "Making A Brave" (left) taken on 31 July 1886 at the Blood Reserve near Fort Macleod in Alberta. At this time the piercing of the skin was illegal and it is not known if the scene was staged or not.

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"Indian Sun Dance," Battleford, Sask., June 1895.
Photo: Archives Canada (G. Moodie)


Another Sun Dance photograph, taken at Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1895 shows a group of mostly clothed and inactive participants (left). It is clear from their attitudes that the photographer is an unwelcome intruder in the ceremony. Officially persecuted, the participants in Sun Dance and Potlatch ceremonies went underground for first half of the 20th century, until the law was revoked in 1951. Not only Indian Agents working for the government but also church officials routinely interfered with traditional First Nations practices, forcing them to be performed in secrecy.

The taboo against non natives taking part in the Sun Dance contributed to its perceived threat to white society. This may have contributed to the government's excessive show of military power in bringing the standoff at Ts'Peten to a violent end despite its private and secluded location.

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First Nations chiefs, 1867. Engraving.
Photo: Archives Canada

Included in the group (seen in the original 1867 photograph by F. Dally) were Dog Creek Chief Na-nah, Alkali Lake Chief Quil - Quailse and Canoe Creek Chief Ta-o'task (right). On the far right side of the photo was Williams Lake Chief William (below right). He is seen in the engraving as the standing chief on the right side (above). In 1879, Chief William wrote to Queen Victoria, protesting the conditions under which his people were forced to live: "I am an Indian Chief and my people are threatened by starvation. The white men have taken all the land all the fish. A vast country was ours. It is all gone. The noise of the threshing machine and the wagon has frightened the deer and the beaver. We have nothing to eat. My people are sick. My young men are angry" Williams Lake Indian Band.


Colonists preferred to portray Indians taking part in European imported ceremonies. An example is the engraving made from a photo taken by F. Dally in 1867 at New Westminster, the capital of the new colony (left). Several northern Secwepemc and independent chiefs were portrayed in the scene which was intended to show the Indians celebrating the birthday of Queen Victoria.

Secwepemc chiefs, 1867.
Photo: Archives Canada (F. Dally)

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BC's first colonial governor, James Douglas, issued a proclamation in 1860 allowing settlers to pre empt unoccupied Crown land. Although he instructed that a 400 - 500 acre reserve be set aside for the Williams Lake Indian Band, this order was never carried out. "The land on which my people lived for five hundred years was taken by a white man. He has crops of wheat and herds of cattle. We have nothing, not an acre. Another white man has enclosed the graves in which the bones of our fathers rest and we may live to see their bodies turned over by his plough. Any white man can take three hundred and twenty acres of our land and the Indians cannot touch an acre. Her majesty sent me a coat, two ploughs and some turnip seed. The coal will not keep away the hunger, the ploughs are idle and the seed is useless because we have no land" 1879, Chief William, Williams Lake Indian Band.


Williams Lake Chief William, 1867.
Photo: Archives Canada (F. Dally)


"10 or 12 years I have
been Chief, and now I
want to tell you what
I have heard. I went
down to Victoria one
time to see McBride.

Some years ago I
went also to see
Borden in Ottawa
- 3 years ago ... I laid
all my troubles before
McBride and Borden,
and you know what
troubles I have had.

I want to have more
room on my Reserves.
I have lots of people
here, and lots of
ground on the hills,
but it is all rocks."

Chief Baptiste Williams
Photo: J. Teit, 1916


In 1881, 14 reserves were set aside for the Williams Lake Indian Band but none of them included the original village sites which were taken over by settlers. Grievances over the stolen land continued to mount and on 10 May 1911 indigenous leaders signed a proclamation of protest to the government of Canada. Northern Secwepemc and independent chiefs included: Frank Tahmesket (for Canim Lake Chief Samuel); Williams Lake Chief Baptiste William; Soda Creek Chief Logshom; acting Canoe Creek Chief John Inroiesket; Dog Creek Chief Joseph Tseopiken; and Alkali Lake Chief Samson Soghomish. See: Memorial to Frank Oliver.

Some of the same chiefs took part in the McKenna McBride Royal Commission when it visted Williams Lake in 1914, including the respected, long time Williams Lake Chief Baptiste Williams (left).


The settlers who set up sawmills at Williams Lake made massive profits from gutting the Caribou native forests. The excessive speed and destruction that occurred is indicated by the BC Forest Service photo (right) of two men standing on a gigantic pile of trees classified as "industrial waste." Today the pine beetle epidemic is another indication of the gross colonial mismanagement of the Caribou forests. "Since contact with the Northern Secwepemc the British Crown (Crown) has alienated lands and resources under the belief that by enacting land legislation this gave them the sole right to grant the lands and resources" Chiefs Statement.

Based in part on the oral testimonies by Williams Lake elders, in 2006 the Indian Claims Commission recommended that Canada accept the Williams Lake Indian Band village site claim for negotiation. See: Indian Claims Commission.


"Industrial waste," Williams Lake, 1959.
Photo: BC Forest Service

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Alkali Lake Indian Band Council, 20 July 1914.
Photo: BC Archives

The McKenna McBride Royal Commission visited the impoverished and remote Indian Reserve at Alkali Lake on 20 July 1914 (above). Alkali Lake Chief Samson Soghomish (seen in a 1920 photo, right) testified: "I am very glad you have come to see us. I have been expecting and wishing for such people as you to come and visit us long before now. Now that you are here, the Indians are all here, and all they cultivate here is in sight. All we wish for is to be let alone ... We have not sufficient water for our needs - we have not got sufficient land for farming, and we want more land" Testimonials (Union of BC Indian Chiefs).


Alkali Lake Chief Samson, 1920.
Photo: Archives Canada

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Alkali Lake Indian Band Council, 20 July 1914.
Photo: BC Archives

Colonists named the Alkali Lake people and Indian Reserve after the white deposits found in the area. The annual salmon fishery was the main livelihood of the community. During the gold rush in the 1850s, white settlers began flooding the Fraser Valley and pre empting the best land for ranching and farming. The Alkali Lake people were alloted 3,587 acres comprising seven reserves in 1881, and in 1895 a further 4,760 acres and seven more reserves were added. But in 1923 a total of 4,952 acres recommended by the McKenna Report was disallowed. Today the Alkali Lake people are known by their traditional name, Esketemc, and their village is called Esk'et, meaning "white ground." See: Esketemc. The Esketemc have continually fought to keep the Aboriginal Title to their land and in 2001 the Indian Claims Commission recommended that Canada accept the Esketemc claim for negotiation. See: Indian Claims Commission.


The commissioners took few photos of the 1914 meetings. A rare photo exists of the Alkali Lake Band Council (left). Doctors were paid by the government to visit the reserve but when Chief Samson was questioned about medical care, he said that many people had died unattended: "The Doctor is too high toned to do anything for the people who are sick. They asked the other Indian Agent, Mr. Bell for a doctor, and he told them that if they had money they could have a doctor, and if they did not have money, we could not have a doctor" Testimonials (Union of BC Indian Chiefs).

Alkali Lake Koim.titsa
Photo: J. Teit, 1913

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Esketemc Phyllis and Andy Chelsea, 2007.
Photo: The World News (BBC)

At age seven Phyllis Chelsea was sent to residential school at the infamous St. Josephs Mission near Williams Lake where she endured physical and sexual abuse and learned how to lie and steal (right). In 2007 she was featured in a BBC documentary on the $2 billion dollar settlement that Canada offered to residential school survivors: The World.


Esketemc Phyllis Chelsea helped to revitalize the Shuswap language and culture (left). She co authored Learning Shuswap (1980) and was the first indigenous member of the Cariboo Chilcotin School Board. She has received the Order of Canada, the Order of BC and an honorary degree from the University of BC. "Along with her husband Chief Andy Chelsea, Phyllis Chelsea led a movement during the 1970s to abstain from alcohol and drugs within the Alkali Lake Indian Band." See: Phyllis Chelsea (ABC Book World).

"St. Joseph Mission School for Girls," c. 1922.
Photo: BC Archives

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Canoe Creek Indian Reserves.
Photo: Google Earth

"Dog Creek Indian Reserve No.1," 1914.
Photo: BC Archives


Today the Canoe Creek Band and the Dog Creek Band are also known as Stswecem'c Xgat'tem. Both First Nations communities are located in a semi remote area southwest of Williams Lake on the east side of the Fraser River (left). In the Google Earth image, you can see the infamous Gang Ranch which is located directly across the river from Canoe Creek Indian Reserve No. 3.

Gang Ranch, 1920.
Photo: North Vancouver Museum

The McKenna McBride Royal Commission visited the Dog Creek Indian Reserve in 1914 (left). Canoe Creek Chief Camille was interviewed: "We are very hard up on this Reserve - we have hardly enough to support ourselves on - we have not got enough land or water for our needs - This is all the land they cultivate on this Reserve, and these are all the people here who have to live on it. On No. 3 Reserve there is not enough land to cultivate on account of the shortage of water ... " Testimonials (Union of BC Indian Chiefs).

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Gang Ranch entrance, 2007.
Photo: Flickr


The Indian Agent for Williams Lake told the commissioners "That hay land that we passed does not belong to the Indians - It belongs to the BC Cattle Company." The huge Gang Ranch (left) and other vast properties were grabbed by Euro Americans who paid next to nothing for the unceded Indian land yet made enormous profits. For a history of ranching in the Cariboo Chilcotin, as this area of BC is called, see Living Landscapes (Royal BC Museum). In this history there is no place for the indigenous peoples who suffered as their traditional territories were overrun and grabbed by rapacious settlers. The imported herds of cattle quickly degraded the pristine and fragile grasslands which were partitioned and fenced off with no regard for the ancient trails and villages.


Fraser Valley near Canoe Creek and the Gang Ranch.
Photo: Flickr


"Anyone visiting the communities for the first time marvel at the prime agricultural land and the vastness of the Canoe Creek and Dog Creek valleys and watersheds. One would think the band was quite well off until the land owned by the local ranchers is pointed out, the major ones being the Canoe Creek Cattle Company, James Cattle in Dog Creek, Dog Creek Ranch, the Gang Ranch and the Empire Valley Ranch."

"Of the band's 5,880.4 hectares, 3880 hectares is rocky hillsides. Each of the main communities of Dog Creek and Canoe Creek are situated on approximately 50 hectares of land, most of it rocky slopes and gravel on the remaining portion ... The community of Dog Creek has seen two major mud slides, the most recent being in the 1940s and one some time before that" Canoe Creek Band.

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Clearcuts in the Cariboo, near Quesnel, 2007.
Photo: Google Earth

The result of the mountain pine beetle invasion can be seen all over the Interior of BC (right). Trees covering enormous tracts are dying and there is little that can be done. In 2005 an action plan was initiated by First Nations across BC: "A healthy forest that continues to sustain the cultural, spiritual, economic and social lives of BC's First Nations and is managed through a respecful government to government relationship" First Nations Forestry Council.


Like the grasslands of the Cariboo Chilcotin which have been destroyed by industrial cattle ranching, its once vast forests have been reduced to a mosaic of clearcuts (left). The intensity of this industrial avarice, much of which has occurred over the past few decades, has left an ecologically devastated environment that is now being invaded by the destructive mountain pine beetle.

Pine beetle infested Cariboo forest, Deka Lake.
Photo: Flickr

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View from Dog Creek Indian Reservation.
Photo: Leatherman

"The band population includes over 650 members, with less than 50% living on the reserve. Many members live off for a number of reasons. Because of the community's remoteness, members have to go elsewhere for work and for post secondary education. There is also a shortage of housing, as well as jobs ... There are numerous administrative problems the people of Canoe Creek and Dog Creek have which result from being in two school districts, two highways districts, two hydro regions, two telephone exchanges, two forest districts and two environment lands regions, for example" Canoe Creek Band. In May 2004 Canoe Creek children from the Rosie Seymour Elementary School (right) visited the heritage park at Soda Creek: Xats'ull Heritage Village.


"Although we had begun to take back control of our health and education programs, we had very little involvement in provincial or regional land or resource management. Our people were using, and managing, the land for fishing, hunting and gathering plants and berries, but many of the court cases that clarified our rights to these resources had yet to be judged. Our Elders encouraged us to take back our responsibility for the land, the people and the resources, or Secwepemcul'ecw. We felt that it was finally time to negotiate an agreement over lands and self governance that we had been lobbying for since 1910" Northern Shuswap Treaty Society.

Canoe Creek kids at Xats'ull, 2004.
Photo: Northern Shuswap Tribal Council

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Unity Ride, Canim Lake, June 2004.
Photo: Northern Shuswap Tribal Council


Like the other indigenous communities in the BC Interior, Canim Lake has had its reserve lands encroached on by public access roads (a highway goes through the main reserves), hydro lines, gas lines and phone lines. "The People of Canim Lake Band, or the Tsq'escenemc as we are known in our native language, Secwepemcstin or Shuswap language, are members of the Shuswap Nation ... The Tsq'escenemc are part of the lakes people of the Northern Shuswap, using the vast number of lakes in the region to maintain our sustenance ... We are a proud nation, with a rich heritage and culture. We have a unique position within the surrounding community and its economy. We are integrating our historic past and technological present to meet our present needs in society" Canim Lake Band. See a photo gallery of a 2004 community event at Canim Lake: Unity Ride.

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