By Kathy Michaels
Only a day has passed since the Okanagan Indian Band blockaded Tolko’s entrance to the Browns Creek watershed and it’s already become fodder for international news coverage.
A German film crew was at the blockade near Vernon yesterday morning, said Chief Fabian Alexis, from the roadside check-point set up in front of the band’s public works office on Westside Road.
And with hordes of Olympic media close at hand, it’s suspected more will follow to chronicle the breakdown of negotiations that in some form have taken the better part of the decade —offering an alternate view of First Nation relations than what’s been shown to date.
Concerns over Browns Creek are long-standing. Since 2003 the band has been before the courts dealing with it in some form and contending further logging in that area would threaten the viability of the surrounding community’s water supply while damaging archeological sites. In recent years they’ve taken on Tolko Industries. Talks over the chunk of land have consistently been peaceful, but this Saturday they reached a boiling point.
Believing Tolko Industries would soon start moving equipment and crews into the watershed, band elders called an emergency meeting.
Once there, the 100 in attendance voted unanimously to blockade and by Monday 60 band members were at the site this morning when Tolko representatives came by to assess the situation, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
“Tolko arrived at 9:45 a.m. and their senior officials approached us and singled out Chief Fabian Alexis and myself and asked us if we would allow equipment and crews passage,” he explained. “We said ‘no.’”
The exchange was cordial, said Phillip, adding that it was repeated twice and seemingly scripted. He added it is likely Tolko will be invoking an injunction order sometime this week.
While the Okanagan band insists Tolko Industries doesn’t have a right to log while land claims remain unresolved, a B.C. court ruled Feb. 11 that the Vernon-based logging company could go ahead with cutting in the Browns Creek area following an archeological consultation.
That consultation was less than genuine and the judge’s decision to move ahead during the winter was ultimately flawed, contend both Stewart and Alexis —who have gained the support of the Union of British Columbian Indian Chiefs —and that’s why they’ve taken this course of action.
Stewart pointed out that it would be impossible to conduct an archeological investigation with four feet of snow on the ground, but Tolko did it anyway. When they went to bring their new evidence back to the judge, they were told she was on vacation and they’d have to go another route. Blockading, ultimately, is what was chosen.
“The provincial government has made it clear that the financial interests of Tolko are of greater concern to them than the health and safety of the people who derive their drinking and irrigation water from the Browns Creek watershed,” said Chief Alexis.
“When it comes to protecting the watersheds that supply Vernon with its water, government agencies would not hesitate to act, but suddenly when it involves our community, our concerns are discounted.”
It’s an issue that has an impact beyond First Nation people as well, he said, pointing out that here are many non-natives in the region who would be impacted.
Perhaps that’s why those who are set up at a check-point are receiving a fairly warm reception.
As they drove by signs bearing messages like, “Save our water, say no to Tolko” drivers of all races waved, honked and gave thumbs up to those who were taking on check-stop duty.
“There’s been some good suggestions and support from our neighbours who don’t just reside on the reserve,” said Alexis.
Throughout the process, Tolko representatives have said the area of dispute, which has been heavily impacted by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, is a vital timber supply for the company’s sawmill in Armstrong.