The Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc (pronounced Ste-kem-LUP-sem t’ suh-WEP-muhc) have occupied their traditional lands in the Kamloops/Thompson region of BC’s interior since time immemorial. Secwepemc culture is intimately linked to Secwepemculecw, their homeland, and to each particular place that supports Secwepemc economy and culture through food, medicines, or timber. Some of these special places, such as Pipsell (Jacko Lake), Goose Lake, the Prayer Tree and Coyote’s Sweathouse, have storied connections with Secwepemc history, ancestors and spiritual beings.
At the heart of the land that is being reclaimed through the title case is Pipsell (Jacko Lake), a spiritual site which is the source of a foundational story for the Secwepemc people. The Trout Children Stseptekwll (Oral History) contains important principles of Secwepemc Indigenous law regarding reciprocal accountability to living beings on the land. This oral history also informs social conduct across generations. Trout from Pipsell and plants from the area — harvested in the crucial period in early spring before the higher-elevation plants are available — continue to play a significant role in the food economy of the Secwepemc.
Yecweminem – Responsibility for the land
The Secwepemc determination to pursue title to their land in court is grounded in Secwepemc Indigenous law and the concept of yecweminem — the obligation to care for and protect land, water and sky worlds within Secwepemc territory.
For decades the Secwepemc have had to contend with a storm of unwanted and polluting projects on their territory, including most recently the TransMountain pipeline and the proposed Ajax gold-copper mine. Mining, roads, settlement, and ranching have deprived the Secwepemc of the enjoyment of their lands. In many places, development has destroyed or damaged the land’s ability to provide for the Secwepemc, or to be used in accordance with Secwepemc culture. The Secwepemc are determined to restore the land to a state of balance, and maintain their traditional and contemporary spiritual practices on the land in the locations marked by their ancestors. Their vision for their land is a healthy ecology supporting a thriving Secwepemc culture and a robust Indigenous economy that contributes to the whole Kamloops region.
Pipsell, the Hunting Blind Complex and Goose Lake collectively comprise a unique historical site in North America. Together, they are a cultural and socio-economic keystone site. This includes not only the lake itself and its Water People and Water World (aquifer) but also special places such as the Prayer Tree, the red-headed woodpecker and chickadee habitats, the Hunting Blind complex and associated grasslands, and Sky World. It is unthinkable that such a profoundly sacred place for the Secwepemc people should ever be dewatered and filled with waste rock and tailings, as the Ajax proposal would have it. The Secwepemc have declared Pipsell a Cultural Heritage Site.
The Secwépemc Nation is an Indigenous group that occupies the Secwépemc traditional territory in southern Interior B.C. The Secwépemc language is part of the Interior Salish group of languages.
The Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (pronounced ste-kem-LUP-sem t’ suh-WEP-muhc, “people of the confluence”) is a governance division of the Secwépemc Nation, situated in the Secwépemc traditional territory around the confluence of the two Thompson Rivers and Kamloops Lake. It is comprised of two groups, Skeetchestn and Tk’emlups, known as the Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (SSN).
The SSN are a progressive community committed to attaining self-government and independence through education and economic development. In 2008, SSN was a recipient of the 2008 Community Economic Developer of the Year Award. The Nation has created over 200 direct jobs and generated $200 million in regional economic activity. SSN currently has approximately 1,000 members living on and off its 33,000-acre (130 km2) reserve. The Secwépemc have strengthened their community with childcare, education and health care facilities as well as other initiatives and infrastructure.
The Secwepemc self-determination to pursue title to their lands in court is grounded in Secwepemc Indigenous law and the concept of yecweminem — the obligation to care protect land, water and sky worlds within Secwepemc territory.
For decades the Secwepemc have had to contend with a storm of unwanted and polluting development and projects on their territory, including most recently the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Ajax gold-copper mine. Mining, roads, forestry, settlement, and ranching have deprived the Secwepemc of the enjoyment of their lands. In many places, development has destroyed or damaged the land’s ability to provide for the Secwepemc, or to be used in accordance with Secwepemc culture.
Consequently, the Secwépemc filed a civil claim before the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The legal remedy they are seeking includes the following:
• a declaration that the Secwépemc Nation holds Aboriginal title to Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc territory, which is part of Secwépemc Traditional Territory;
• a declaration that the Secwepemc people hold Aboriginal rights;
• a declaration that by issuing permits and authorizations to the KGHM Ajax mining company, Canada and B.C. have unjustifiably infringed on the Secwépemc Aboriginal Title and Rights.
• an injunction prohibiting any mining, timber harvesting, or road building pursuant to permits and authorizations granted to KGHM Ajax in respect of the proposed Ajax mine;
• and damages for the past and continued infringements of Secwépemc Aboriginal Title and Rights.
British Columbia intends to “vigorously oppose” the Secwépemc title case, even though its own Environmental Assessment Office has estimated that the Secwépemc have a strong prima facie (“upon initial examination”) case for both Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights.
The Secwépemc title case will set a precedent for future cases and advance the legal rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada by determining to what extent private property rights are subject to underlying Aboriginal rights and title rights as protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act.
The proposed Ajax Mine project location at Pipsell (Jacko Lake) is within the Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc (SSN) asserted territory and is contrary to SSN land use objectives for this sacred, culturally significant and keystone site. A determination of Aboriginal rights and title will advance self-government including decision-making and management of SSN lands, but also widen the scope of protection available to other First Nations communities whose lands, culture and way of life, are threatened by private industry activity.
According to Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc legal counsel, Sarah D. Hansen, this is a complex case that will take several years to litigate. The ultimate amount of legal costs depends on many factors that are not within the control of the Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc, notably any pre-trial motions brought by Canada, British Columbia or KGHM Ajax. For their part, the Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc need to bring a comprehensive and substantial evidentiary record, expert witnesses, and oral testimony from community members.
For 2019, RAVEN has set the goal of raising $200,000 for the Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc case, annually towards the total projected costs to Stk‘emlúpsemc te Secwépemc.
Currently, SSN are taking depositions of elders who may not be available to testify at the trial. Recently, the SSN were successfully in having the court allow deposition evidence of an elder to be taken by a panel of SSN members, in the traditional way. This is the first time this has ordered in Canada, permitting flexibility pertaining to the giving of evidence despite there being no specific provision in the Rules of Court which provides for group or panel evidence. The decision can be found at 2019 BCSC 10, and commentary is available on the Lawyers Daily Bulletin.