PORT McNEILL — Native leaders behind two days of protest in this North Island community — including one that blocked a ferry — warn bigger disruptions could be coming if their message does not get a government response.
“There’s one bridge that connects five North Island communities to the rest of the island,” said vice-president of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, Bob Chamberlin, referring to the Nimpkish Bridge.
“And we’re prepared to camp on it for as long as it takes.”
However, it may not come to that after both sides agreed to a meeting to try and hammer out an agreement.
The two-day protest that prompted the planned confab began Aug. 3 when approximately 60 demonstrators from Kwakiutl First Nations in Fort Rupert and others marched about four-km from Hwy. 19 at the Port McNeill junction to the Western Forest Products log sort in Port McNeill.
The protesters drummed and sang and carried signs with messages such as: Kwakiutl Land Belong(s) To Us, No More Clear Cutting and Save Our Forest.
“When we look around our traditional territories you can see the huge, blatant removal of a natural resource,” Kwakiutl’s elected chief, Coreen Child, said from the WFP yard.
“There are clear cuts happening along highways, there’s no buffering zone and there is no consultation with our nation around any of this.”
Child said she hoped the protests would draw attention to what she said is the province’s misinterpretation of the Douglas Treaty — an 1850s accord which the Kwakiutl and 13 other Vancouver Island First Nations signed that declared areas of land were surrendered “entirely and forever” in exchange for cash, clothing or blankets. The signatories and their descendants retained existing village sites and fields for their continued use, the “liberty to hunt over unoccupied lands” and the right to “carry on their fisheries.”
But Child said the Kwakiutl’s traditional territory exceeds the Douglas Treaty boundary lines.
“If you look at that treaty that was signed by our people … that was a statement made in the 1800s,” she said.
“We’re now in 2011 and we’re not being acknowledged as aboriginal right and title holders.”
The situation became worse when the province seemed to arbitrarily allow WFP to remove more than 14,000 hectares of privately-owned land from a tree farm licence in 2007 without consulting with the Kwakiutl.
As a result, the band began a lawsuit against the province in April, 2008. It is still before the courts.
Child said many First nations have a form of agreement where they get a strategic plan from logging companies that state what the plans are within their traditional territories.
“When you look at the forestry and economic growth they have, we get zero recognition for it,” she said.
“Some First nations are making $500,000 to $1 million on (logging deals).”
But Child added first and foremost the Kwakiutl want to be recognized as a nation.
“There’s this government-to-government strategic planning that’s supposed to happen and it’s not happening. The other — economics — will come into play,” she said.
On Thursday, about 100 protesters marched onto the BC Ferries dock in Port McNeill, blocking vehicle access to the Quadra Queen II for more than an hour while drumming, dancing and making speeches.
As the ferry docked on arrival from Alert Bay, four canoes filled with band members symbolically blockaded the ship with raised paddles as their dockside counterparts whooped while irked locals and bemused tourists looked on.
“Does anybody know how long this is going to last?” asked Barb Gagnon. “I live in Sointula and I’d like to get home.”
Several tourists seemed to enjoy the spectacle, and one of them pulled out a cell phone to take pictures of the activities.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs said the BCUIC supported the protesters and would help with future demonstrations.
“If the Kwakiutl people need to take this step to be heard, know that the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs will be on that bridge with you,” he said.
Child, elder Christine Joseph and hereditary chief George Hunt also spoke during the dock protest.
After leaving the ferry dock, the marchers, their ranks bolstered by the addition of the canoe paddlers, walked up Campbell Way with an RCMP escort and took the protest to the Ministry of Forests office on Mine Road.
There, they had lunch and continued to drum, dance and speak on the issue of title and treaty rights. The protesters left a letter addressed to the premier, which has since been passed to the Clark’s office.
Chamberlin said the protests sent a strong message to the province.
“To continue to deny to consult Kwakiutl First Nation’s titles and rights is just wrong,” he said.
“We call upon (Premier) Christy Clark and (Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation) Mary Polak to come and understand the issues and be prepared to find a solution so we do not have to call our people to the streets because we’ve demonstrated today they will come.”
Forests Ministry spokeswoman Vivian Thomas said the government heard the protesters and is ready to sit down and talk money with the Kwakiutl.
“The province is considering the Kwakiutl’s eligibility for forest consultation and revenue sharing agreement and we are prepared to discuss forestry revenue sharing with them,” she said.
Child confirmed the province has agreed to a meeting, but said her people want to see some movements or actions like blocking bridges could happen.
“(The government) has the the ability to put on the table that, yes, the Kwakiutl have aboriginal rights and title, yes they need to be accommodated and yes we acknowledge them within their whole traditional territory,” she said.
“If that’s not going to be recognized, those are the steps we’re willing to take to be recognized.”