The courts in British Columbia seem in the last few weeks to have been heading in contradictory directions in regard to the Neskonlith campaign against the expansion of the Ski Peaks resort. In one decision a [provincial court has imprisoned four Shuswap protesters, making them, in Chief Arthur Manuel’s words, “political prisoners”; in the other The BC Supreme Court has freed protesters accused of contempt of court for their continued protests, leading to euphoric Shuswap claims of “victory in our struggle.”

First case:

On December 17 a provincial judge convicted Rose Jack, Trevor Dennis and Mark Sauls to 90 days imprisonment for blocking a road and stopping the operation of a backhoe that was ripping up their land at the Sun Peaks Ski Resort, and Rod Anderson received an intermittent sentence of 90 days to be served on weekends.

All four have been actively involved in the defense of Secwepemc (Shuswap) traditional territories against Sun Peaks resort. It was Anderson whose family had their home at MacGillivray Lake destroyed more than a year ago by Ski Peaks, (no actions have been taken against Sun Peaks).

A counterclaim has been filed claiming the area as part of the Neskonlith Douglas Reserve, set aside for the exclusive use of the Secwepemc and unilaterally reduced by the government (in 1862) after handing out smallpox blankets and decimating the population, says a Neskonlith press release, (his claim has been denied by the governments).

The Neskonlith argument is that in 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Delgamuukw Decision, recognized Aboriginal Title as the collective proprietary interest of Aboriginal people in their traditional territories. This decision applies to the whole of BC where no treaties have been signed regarding land rights and the land question remains unsettled. Yet the federal and provincial governments uphold their extinguishment policy regarding comprehensive Aboriginal Title claims and specific reserve land claims, in order to maintain their exclusive jurisdiction, says a Neskonlith press release.

Aboriginal people who exercise their Aboriginal Title and rights are prosecuted under criminal law, no effort being made to accommodate their substantive Aboriginal Title and rights.

Neskonlith chief Chief Arthur Manuel stated after the Dec 17 judgment:

“Today’s decision recognizes Rose Jack, Trevor Dennis, Mark Sauls and Rod Anderson as freedom fighters and at the same time makes them political prisoners.”

Second case:

January 10 four Neskonlith protesters, Henry Sauls, Irene Billy, George Manuel Jr. and Charles Willard were all acquitted of criminal contempt charges by Justice Lynn Smith, in BC Supreme Court. They had been charged after refusing to leave a protest camp near Sun Peaks Resort in July, 2001, and were arrested after ignoring a Supreme Court injunction and enforcement order requiring them to vacate the protest camp. The tent was located on the same spot the resort intended to dig a sewer line.

Justice Smith said the Crown failed to prove the demonstrators were directly violating the court order.

“The defence position is technical but I have concluded, with reluctance, that it must prevail. It may seem to some that the court’s order has been flouted and may invite others to do so; (however) I find these proceedings should be dismissed.”

The crowd in the court cheered Smith’s decision. The natives refused to leave the Skwelkwekwelt camp because they opposed continued development at Sun Peaks. All were peacefully arrested July 23, 2001.

Irene Billy, 74, admitted she wasn’t sure what to expect in court.

“I wasn’t going to give up, whatever the decision. I always knew we were right, this is our land and Sun Peaks and the province cannot remove us from it,” she said.

This case sets an important precedent for other cases of Aboriginal people defending their lands around Skwelkwek’welt and Sutikalh, commented a Neskonlith press release.

Chief Manuel said:

“I am delighted with the court decision, our people are not criminals, they love and defend their land and the courts are coming to realize that. It is the government and the companies who refuse to deal with our land rights and human rights in a meaningful way, they are the ones who use violence and the police against our people.”