Okanagan Indian Band chief Byron Louis listens as Westbank First Nations chief Robert Louie speaks at the opening of the new Highway 97 through Lake Country.

First Nations elder’s trail becomes Lake Country’s new Highway 97

With a nod to the First Nations of the past, the new Highway 97 opens to traffic from Winfield to Oyama

Hours before vehicles began traveling freely over a new, four-lane highway from Winfield to Oyama on the weekend, officials from all levels of government as well as members of the public took part in an official opening that celebrated the history of the route the new Highway 97 takes.

And while the majority of the 26,000 vehicles a day that will use the nine kilometre stretch likely won’t know they are passing over sacred grounds, those in attendance at the opening were certainly aware of the significance of the new highway, not only in terms of safety for the traveling public, but in cooperation between senior and local government as well as area First Nations groups.

“This highway might only be nine kilometres long but at the end of the day it’s a reflection on how all levels of people can work together to get something accomplished,” said Byron Louis, the chief of the Okanagan Indian Band. “These are the types of relationships that need to go on in the future. They say transportation and education are two things that drive economies. We have both here. This is transportation but also education because of the things that have been found here and preserved. There was a net that was laid out just as it was thousands of years ago and that has been preserved.”

It was an important and emotional day for those involved as the face of the community of Lake Country changed forever with the new highway opening and the old highway, now known as Pelmewash Parkway, set to be taken over by the District of Lake Country.

But it was the past that was fresh on many people’s minds, beginning with the ceremonial prayer, spoke in English by OIB elder Ranger Robins.

I’m not going to speak in our traditional language because I get choked up sometimes…I’m at a loss for words” said Robins. “I recall coming here before the old road was built and we did a First Nations’ walk. I was honoured then and I’m honoured again to give this road a blessing.”

Westbank First Nations chief Robert Louie was also in attendance at the opening which paid tribute to the First Nations that first inhabited the area with the blessing by Robins as well as a song by the OIB drum group Little Hawk.

The highway is built along the same route First Nations travelled long before roads were built.

“The elder trail was indeed used by our elders over the years for thousands and thousands of years,” said Louie. “Because of the need to get (build) this in a hurry, much of the artifacts remain in the soil and they are at specific locations. They will have to be (dealt with) in the future.”

Lake Country mayor James Baker, a retired university professor who taught both of the native chiefs when he was a university prof, said the involvement of First Nations and the artifacts that have been uncovered are important parts of the story.

“As an archaelogist I appreciate the work that has been done on this,” said Baker. “This was an elder’s trail and is now a four-lane highway. As work continues in the valley in the future more work has to be done with respect to First Nations. This is a great investment for the entire province and for us (the DLC). We inherit an old road but we can make it better.”

The new Highway 97 bypasses a dangerous, winding stretch of road that runs along Wood Lake and will soon come under District of Lake Country control and which is now known as Pelmewash Parkway.

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