Okanagan Indian Band chief Byron Louis

Okanagan Indian Band: Rail corridor court case part of larger battle

OKIB chief Byron Louis speaks to Lake Country Calendar on aboriginal issues including upcoming hearing to stop sale of CN corridor

Okanagan Indian Band chief Byron Louis says his band’s court action, to try and stop the sale of the CN corridor to a group of municipalities, is just a small piece of a larger puzzle.

Louis, the 52-year-old chief that represents some 2,000 Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) members living on reserve land around Lake Country and near Vernon along the shores of Okanagan Lake, sat down with the Lake Country Calendar on the weekend to discuss the court case, the potential sale of the CN corridor as well as the history of Canada’s aboriginal people.

“(Land claims) have always been an issue and something we’d be going to the courts regardless of the rail trail,” said Louis, a father of two grown daughters. “We’re hoping that there is an injunction granted (to stop the sale) and then we can start moving to settle this. We haven’t changed our position since 1893. A lot of people don’t know the history, especially in the Okanagan. There are so many different facts not settled on this issue. That’s why we filed the injunction.”

The land in question is referred to as the Commonage reserve and is different than a smaller two kilometre section of the CN corridor through OKIB reserve land near Duck Lake. That part of the corridor was not included in the tentative $22 million deal between CN and the group of municipalities including Kelowna and Lake Country. Should the sale go through, the OKIB will maintain ownership of that stretch of the corridor.

However the Commonage reserve is a much larger track of land, located in and around Kalamalka Lake—what the OKIB members have historically referred to as Long Lake. Prior to first contact with settlers, members of the OKIB worked the land in the Commonage area, breeding and raising farm animals, among one of the many uses on their traditional land.

“We knew the value of the land, especially for winter grazing,” said Louis. “We were using the land up until the time of contact for hunting and gathering and the raising of stock.”

But Louis, who studied political science, anthropology and history in university, says when European settlers arrived, tension between natives and settlers began to mount around the Pacific Northwest, in Washington and in the Okanagan. The federal government put together a joint commission to deal with aboriginals, establishing reserves in an attempt to avert war, including the Commonage reserve, an area where natives and settlers were supposed to share the land.

“When the Commonage was set aside for range lands for natives and settlers, that was done by the joint reserve commission in 1877 or so,” said Lake Country mayor James Baker, a retired anthropology professor, who counts among his former students, not only OKIB chief Louis, but also Westbank First Nations chief Robert Louie.

“Then the province decided that was too much land for the Indians so they convinced the federal government it shouldn’t be a reserve or held in common for settlers and natives, it should just be for settlers.”

According to Louis, the establishment of the Commonage reserve and then the government’s decision to take it away without compensation, is the basis of what his band has been fighting for, for close to 150 years.

In the following years after the Commonage was given to settlers, a rail right of way would be pushed through the area. As white settlements began to grow around the Okanagan, Indian populations were falling drastically and native children were being placed in the now-infamous residential schools, where they were not taught about their history.

“Nationally for aboriginals in Canada the death rate was higher than the birth rate up until about 1911,” said Louis. “In our band it was 1926 before that stabilized. We had less opportunities for forestry and agriculture and the growth of our population suffered.”

In Lake Country, mayor James Baker finds himself in an odd position. On one hand, the mayor of a growing municipality has championed the acquisition of the CN corridor by the municipalities while his education and his teaching gives him a unique view on the history of Canadian aboriginals.

He has been told not to talk about the issue as it is before the courts with a court date expected to be set for late May and heard in B.C. Supreme Court.

“My personal opinion doesn’t matter because it’s before the courts,” said Baker. “I’m trying to support our position of being able to buy the corridor because CN is selling it. But at the same time there is a case that the band could make that the land was taken from them without compensation. I agree with the courts. There are many cases that have come to the determination that aboriginal title underlies the whole of B.C. unless where there has been a treaty.”

Baker said he has maintained all along that the inter-jurisdicitonal team should have been pursuing the deal with the help of the OKIB. But the mayor was not a member of the acquisition team and that team has always said they are moving forward with the purchase because the land CN is selling is free title. The OKIB was offered a spot on the acquisition team but declined.

“We were always up front when they asked us if we wanted to be a part of the purchase team,” said Louis. “We refused and said we had to maintain our position. We always advised there is not clear title on that right of way. We’ve never said we are against a rail trail. We’ve never taken it back to our membership. For the most part our people think it makes sense. But they need to take the time to think about the issue.”

Louis says it’s not about a proposed transportation corridor or any other potential uses of the land between Kelowna and Vernon. He says despite hard times since the time of contact with settlers, the aboriginal people have turned a corner in B.C., pointing to the economic development on Westbank First Nations land as an example.

“Up and down the Okanagan Valley there is growth in all of our communities,” he said. “There is growth in our economic power and it’s going to continue. The WFN generates $40 million per year for the province. The (federal and provincial) governments will have to deal with this now or they will deal with us in the future. This is just one step in a long process. It’s been going on for 150 years but slowly it’s starting to change. It’s only been in the last 10 years where we have started to see substantive change in Canada.  With our people, it’s always been about the land. At the end of the day, money is not solid. Land is forever.”