Cayoose Creek band refuses to cede salmon-spawning territory

Sekw'el'was Chief Michelle Edwards says the community won't leave the creek until their demand for meaningful consultation is met

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Protestors and community members gathered to sing and drum outside the fence erected by a private security force at Cayoose Creek. Video by Russel Peters.

A Cayoose Creek First Nation's ongoing peaceful protest to protect a salmon-spawning creek near Lillooet has resulted in some disturbing threats against the community. 

On three separate instances, members say they found live shells embedded in the wood used to fuel their ceremonial fire—one of them resulted in Sekw'el'was Chief Michelle Edwards being struck in the leg by a bullet. No one knows who put the shells there. 

But Chief Edwards and Former chief Garry John say they haven't been daunted by the events. They've moved their camp to the other side of the creek, where they'll await a hearing before the provincial environmental appeal board. 

Edwards and John came to Vancouver last weekend hosting a rally in support of the protest and to spread information about the areas they’re protecting.

“It kind of perked everybody back up,” Edwards said, after recovering from her leg injury. “It was great just being able to be out there drumming and singing...and talking about why we need to protect the salmon." 

Photo submitted by Garry John

Threat to salmon spawning

When plans for a new water intake to serve the District of Lillooet were pushed through in January of this year, Edwards filed an appeal with the provincial environmental appeal board citing a lack of consultation with the band on whose traditional territory the construction was to take place. The creek is an important salmon spawning location and part of the spawning channels the band helps to maintain. The new intake system will trap fry, damaging the salmon population and eventually deterring salmon from returning there.

The request for a stay of work was denied, but there will be a hearing to determine whether the District did its due diligence before beginning construction. Edwards is also waiting on the results of survey research to determine whether the intake is actually on reserve land.

Construction on the intake system is now complete and, in accordance with their contract, the company has attempted to restore the area to its natural state. But according to Edwards, instead of buying plants and seeking advice from the native plants nursery run by the band, the company had brought in invasive plant species.

Edwards said the lack of response to their presence and to the incidents with the bullets has been frustrating, adding that security crews have been onsite 24 hours a day and that even the local paper hasn’t reported on it.

The RCMP visited the site to investigate, but said nothing has come of it so far. Senior media relations officer Rob Vermeulen said the RCMP couldn’t comment on specifics.

“The RCMP is there to uphold the law, maintain the public peace and ensure safety for all parties, including the protesters. The RCMP will be continually assessing the situation and adjusting our resources accordingly,” he said via email.

No meetings granted

So far, the only representative from the District of Lillooet to visit has been Chief Administrative Officer Brad McRae, who told the Vancouver Observer the fire had been extinguished and protestors had packed up and gone home.

John said the community is disappointed Lillooet mayor Dennis Bontron hasn’t made an appearance, in spite of numerous requests for a meeting.

“The mayor has not had the intestinal fortitude to at least sit and meet with Chief Edwards and the other leader of the nation, and has chosen to do Facebook cameos instead,” he said. 

John attributes the lack of media coverage to the peaceful nature of the demonstration.

“Mainstream media probably hadn’t picked up on it because there haven’t been fights, nobody is wearing camouflage or masks or making threats,” he said.

In spite of the attitude of the security force, he said, there hasn’t been any direct conflict between protestors and police. He also credits Edwards for keeping it that way.

“She does a remarkable job in making sure this protest is kept peaceful and everybody has kept the gloves on for the most part.”

John added that the communities of Cayoose Creek and the Seton River have been paying for the upkeep of the spawning channels the federal government built in the early 20th century, long after government support dried up.

“I've been impressing upon anybody who’ll listen for the past several years that the St’at’imic and Cayoose Creek have made significant effort to improve or mitigate some of the impact of BC Hydro and the railways to try and improve the lot for salmon,” he said.

The nations have been lobbying the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and BC Hydro to protect fish habitat for years, and John said it’s disappointing that the District of Lillooet won’t engage in meaningful discussions today.

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