[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
The 6,000 Tsilhqot'in tribal council is generally regarded as BC's most militant Indians. In 1864 it fought a war for sovereignty and, if recent developments are any indication, today's members are eager for a rematch. A February 10 letter from the Tsilhqot'in national government in Williams Lake to Chilcotin Forest Manager Gerry Grant warns that the forest district must negotiate resource use with it by the end of spring, or vacate its claimed territory - ranging from the western side of the Rocky Mountains to eastern Anahim Lake, and from just south of 100 Mile House to northern Quesnel.
The letter declared that logging mandated by Victoria is no longer legally valid as a result of the Supreme Court of Canada's Delgamuukw ruling. Any further activity, it warned, will be "at your own professional and private peril." The Tsilhqot'in also claimed that the Xeni Gwetin band has already begun its own timber-harvesting program with the tribal council's approval. The letter concluded with the salutation, "looking forward to a radically revised relationship," and copies were sent to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Premier Glen Clark.
The ultimatum could have dire ramifications for the 2.5 million-hectare Chilcotin forest district, which is part of the Williams Lake Timber Supply Area and generated $225 million in provincial timber revenues last year. Timber from the region supports several sawmills in Williams Lake. Frank Miklas, operations manager for the district says, "We have engaged our legal and branch experts to study the issue. Until they give their opinions, we are not planning any action." But Don Wise, issues coordinator for the Tsilhqot'in, told the Vancouver Sun that the tribal council wants action from Victoria, not the forest district. Specifically, it wants the annual harvest from the region halved. Says Mr. Wise," We addressed the letter to the district manager because he is the person authorized by the province to remove our resources. But the message is for the government."
The Tsilhqot'in are supported by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, which represents the 60 Interior bands boycotting the BC Treaty Commission process. UBCIC staff member Millie Poplar says the Tsilhqot'in have been eager to gain sovereignty for years, and applauds their decision to "take the bull by the horns." Doug Caul, director of aboriginal affairs for the ministry of Forests, says the Tsilhqot'in's bargaining leverage is reduced significantly because they are not part of the treaty process. He explains, "[They] have made their point of view, and we don't agree with it. To suggest we might reach a compromise implies we are in large-scale negotiations with them, which we are not."
Delgamuukw analysts are concerned that the Tsilhqot'in cite the decision as a foundation for their claim. The December ruling said aboriginals have a right to "co-manage" resources on crown land to which they prove title, and that the province is obliged to consult and compensate them for any title infringements. "The major problem with the Delgamuukw ruling is its ambiguity, which allows natives like the Tsilhqot'in to interpret it in highly inflammatory and legally questionable ways," remarks Dave Peterson, president of the Cariboo Lumber Association. The Tsilhqot'in are the first native group in BC to invoke Delgamuukw in a bid to gain control of the forestry sector, and Mr. Peterson prefers not to discuss the likelihood of other bands following suit. "Delgamuukw has the potential to throw BC into chaos," he contends.
That fear is shared by Jake Kerr, chairman of Lignum Ltd. which operates a Williams Lake sawmill and has a number of joint ventures with Cariboo Chilcotin natives. "It further confuses what was a very confusing situation in the first place," he says. "We have done our best to be as non-confrontational and cooperative as possible." Forests Minister Dave Zirnhelt, however, appears unimpressed by the Tsilhqot'in ultimatum. He met with the tribal council last week, but maintains that Victoria's legal interpretation of Delgamuukw is that the province still has authority to manage the land, and that native rights can be infringed upon as long as consultation has taken place. "They don't have the mechanics to enforce the Forest Practices Code, or to deliver revenues," he said, "We do. Having agreed to disagree, we will work together."
Mr. Zirnhelt's response does not satisfy BC Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell, who demanded last week that the government order an RCMP review of the tribal council's threats. "I'm shocked that it has been two weeks since the premier was sent this letter, and thus far he has done nothing to stand up for the letter of the law." Meanwhile foresters are trying to maintain what are generally good inter-racial work relations. "We have to keep in mind that overall, we enjoy progressive cooperation between natives and non-natives," says Mr. Peterson, adding that all of his association's members have joint venture projects with natives. Mr. Caul is cautiously optimistic that the Tsilhqot'in affair will be resolved peacefully. "Victoria will abide by its decision to involve natives in resource planning," he says. "We want nothing more than to include them in the industry. But involvement must be based on existing opportunities - we are not going to create special ones."
More information on the BC "Trick or Treaty" Con-mission: http://kafka.uvic.ca/~vipirg/SISIS/clark/main.html#bctc