“It's too bad we have to use our money to get our land back.”
Hundreds of people gathered on Friday for a historic celebration in Okanagan Falls with the Osoyoos Indian Band, who recently purchased one acre of their reserve that was taken away over a hundred years ago.
OIB Chief Clarence Louie said the original reserve was set aside in 1877 and stolen by the Federal and Provincial governments in 1913 through the McKenna McBride Royal Commission.
This land was an important part of the Osoyoos Indian Reserve and the entire Okanagan (Syilx) Nation. A few months ago, the piece of land came up for sale on the open market.
“The OIB purchased approximately one acre of its old reserve back and now, after 108 years of being denied access to this important cultural and salmon fishing site, our people will now have unimpeded access to our ancestor's historic village (fishing) site,” the band shared.
“The Indigenous history of this site is known by our language and traditional knowledge keepers as where Coyote places the dam there for our people to salmon fish, as well as the rock outcroppings are important symbols - 'beaver, musqaut, and fisher' – to remind us of the connection between the top of the mountain and the water.”
During the celebrations, a couple of band members who were at the original land dispute protest throughout Okanagan Falls in 1974 came forward to speak.
“This is the first time in 49 years I had a chance to tell you what happened. That’s only a small part because this is only the beginning. There’s much more that happened,” said Adam Ineas, who was the Penticton Indian Band Chief at the time.
“I’m honoured and proud to be a part of that action at that time.”
Louie said Indigenous people didn’t start fighting unresolved land issues in this province until the 1960s and it continues today.
“All over North America, whether it's US or Canada, reconciliation has been talked about, Indigenous rights, truth and reconciliation. And the truth is that this was our land, your ancestors, my ancestors set this aside on purpose for their Osoyoos Indian band, the Okanagan nation member people, because of the cultural and historic fishing significance of this site,” he added.
For decades the band said they have been denied access to this important cultural and salmon fishing site. But this land is just one acre of the 71 that the band used to have.
“We're going to get our land back and if it takes one acre at a time, that's just the way it is. We fully understand that private lands are not on the table of any land claims, discussions or negotiations. But there's still provincial land being held here. There's a provincial park here that should come back to the Osoyoos Indian Band.”
Louie said while there is a celebration of such a spiritual and cultural land being back in the hands of the OIB, he wasn’t happy they had to purchase it.
“Does it bother me we had to pay? Just a little bit it bothers me because that owner that owned this property deserves to be paid… You can't just kick somebody off their property without compensation. You can't do what the government did to us, just take our land away.”
“Land is always more important than money. Always has been, always will be.”
While Truth and Reconciliation are pushed by all levels of government to better relationships with Indigenous communities, Louie said the small steps of flag raising and land acknowledgements really sit as nothing but "nice gestures."
“It seems to me, sometimes in the province, they preach Truth and Reconciliation, they passed UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). But again, those are just things on paper. We want to see it hit the reserves, in the trenches, dealing with land conflict,” he said.
“We don't want your money. We want our land back.”
He added that the band is short over 4,000 acres of their original reserve size.
“Reconciliation to me means we start getting our reserve back to its original size.”
Louis said he feels now that the majority of Canadians have learned of the history of how Indigenous people were treated and there’s true support for rectifying past wrongs.
“I can still understand that there are people, whether it's in the Okanagan or on the prairies, that are against Indian reserves. That colonial attitude ain't gonna go away from 20 per cent of Canadians. But I think 80 per cent of Canadians understand that you can't move forward without rectifying the past. You’ve got to reconcile the past," he said.
“It's good to see that the province has taken baby steps, I actually call them baby steps. I want to see an adult step taken. It's time for adult steps and no more baby steps.
The next move for the OIB is to submit the land for the Additions to Reserve process and continue conversations with the province on park and crown land that used to be in the Band’s hands.