Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
An Okanagan chief says it’s time for B.C. conservation officers to stop harassing his people, as a member of the community deals with the aftermath of allegedly being arrested while exercising his Indigenous hunting rights.
It was November of 2019 when a group of five men from the Okanagan Indian Band went out on their territory to hunt for deer — an annual practice that’s steeped in ceremonial teachings and meant to provide families with food for the year.
However as the Syilx hunters approached Inkumupulux (Head of Okanagan Lake), they were confronted by a representative from B.C. Conservation Officer Services who asked to see their status cards, according to one of the hunters who asked to remain anonymous because of an ongoing dispute with the B.C. Conservation Officer Services (COS).
“I told him he was trespassing and out of his jurisdiction,” says one of the hunters.
“He pulled his hand gun out.”
He says the group knew their hunting rights, which are guaranteed through the federal Constitution Act, which is why he refused to show his status card.
The situation escalated, the hunter says, and the conservation officer called the RCMP for backup.
He says he counted four police units “in full swat attire” alongside the conservation officers — all of whom, he says, had guns drawn.
The hunter says he took out his phone to record the altercation but the phone was taken by RCMP and the video was deleted. A representative from the RCMP was not available to comment.
As the group continued to refuse compliance, the hunter says he was arrested and taken to an RCMP detachment in Armstrong, B.C. He says he was held in a jail cell for several hours before being released after one of the officers in charge realized what happened.
“[The head officer] told the cops that arrested me that they messed up big time and that I was to be released immediately,” the hunter says.
However, Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis says damage was already done as his people’s rights continue to be stepped on by law enforcement.
He says last year’s incident, though an egregious example, is part of an ongoing problem with B.C. conservation officers who don’t have any jurisdiction on Okanagan Indian Band land.
Several videos and stories have been recently shared on social media of B.C. conservation officers asking Okanagan Indian Band members and other Syilx People to show their status cards both on and off reserve.
Louis says he is concerned about the safety and wellbeing of the community — particularly when guns are being drawn and RCMP backup called in.
“They are jeopardizing our lives,” Louis says.
“We could’ve seriously had a member shot. And I will not accept that, that is totally unacceptable.”
B.C. Conservation Officer Services did not comment about the specific incident, but confirmed in a written statement that its representatives have met with Okanagan Indian Band leaders “to address concerns” about its work in their region.
The statement says conservation officers will ensure hunters are in compliance with both provincial and federal legislation involving firearms, as well as determining if wildlife is harvested legally.
“All hunters must provide this information to verify their compliance with the Wildlife Act,” the statement says about requests for documentation.
The Wildlife Act is provincial legislation which Louis says does not apply on federal band land. Louis says he did meet with B.C. Conservation Officer Services, but the meeting did not go as planned, with inadequate representation from the province making it difficult to come to a resolution.
‘This is the agreement you have signed’
The Okanagan Indian Band is made up of more than 2,000 members, all of whom are also part of the larger Syilx Nation.
Louis says the Okanagan Indian Band has never ceded or surrendered any territory to Canada, so this means that Indigenous Peoples in B.C., with no treaty, hold sovereignty.
“From one side of the country to the other…[is] unbroken access for our traditional use, and resources termed for food sustenance and ceremonial use,” he says.
“That’s what they agreed to in exchange for the settlement of foreign populations on our lands.”
The Constitution Act, 1982, protects the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as hunting and fishing, through Section 35.
In 1861, the colony of British Columbia and the Dominion of Canada (the formal name of Canada) negotiated the terms of union to join the dominion — which was led by B.C.’s chief commissioner of land and works Joseph Trutch.
Trutch is known for reducing the sizes of reserves throughout the colony that were set by then-governor James Douglas. Trutch believed that existing First Nation reserves were, “entirely disproportionate to the numbers or requirements of the Indian Tribes.”
On July 20, 1871, the colony of British Columbia became part of the Confederation of Canada. B.C. was the sixth province to join Canada. It’s during those negotiations that Trutch made it clear that no dealings were to be done with Indigenous Peoples in the province, and all responsibility is to lie with Canada. Louis says those terms, laid out in Section 13 of the Terms of Union, still apply today.
“[Joseph Trutch] was one of the people who was calling for our extermination at the time,” says Louis.
“The province has not only limited their constitutional interaction with First Nations, they further limited it to specifically one area and that is the transfer of land for the use and benefit [of First Nations].”
Louis says he tells members to cite this agreement during interactions with conservation officers, as well as asking the question: “have you informed our chief and council that you are now trespassing on our lands?”
He also wishes to leave the provincial government with a reminder.
“This is the agreement you have signed,” he says.
In the meantime, the Syilx hunter says he holds the province accountable to that agreement by continuing to exercise his rights.
“If we don’t practice our rights, we lose our rights,” he says.