First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Mount Cheam, Lower Fraser River Watershed. Pilalt Territory


Mountain goat diorama, New York.
American Museum of Natural History



Pilalt indigenous people from the village at Cheam are called "the mountain goat people" because of an ancestral myth and the right to hunt the animal is passed down in certain families. In 2003, several Pilalt were arrested after blockading the railroad through the Cheam Reserve to protest against the logging taking place on Mount Cheam in preparation for a massive Resorts West project. Plans include 20 ski lifts on eight different peaks, three resort villages, a golf course and hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Such habitat destruction means the natural history museum is increasingly becoming the only place where the mountain goat can be found (left).

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Cheam blockade with members of the West Coast Warrior Society, April 2000.
Photo: Bert Crowfoot

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One of the most prominent mountains along the Fraser River is Mount Cheam, which marks the Pilalt Territory of the Cheam people (right). This small First Nations community has a long history of protest actions against the encroachment of their Aboriginal Title and Rights by fishing, logging and development (above). The Cheam Indian Band is one of 30 First Nations communities in the lower Fraser watershed many of which are represented by the Stó:lo Nation.

Stó:lo (pronounced stah low) is the anglicized word for "river" in the downriver Halkomelem dialect of Sahlishan and is used today as a broad political affiliation. The Stó:lo hold the government to the "Crown's Promise" covenant made in 1864 between the Stó:lo and the British representative of Queen Victoria, which promised them a quarter of the profits from the exploitation of their land and resources.


Mount Cheam and the Fraser River, 2006.
Photo: Kelly Pearce

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"Indian canoes on the Fraser," c. 1868.
Painting: William R. Hines

The first settlers arrived by steampowered paddlewheelers. In 1864 the colonial authorities began to impose the reserve system on the Stó:lo which allowed settlers to preempt unceded untreatied Stó:lo land and take over Stó:lo fisheries. Stó:lo territories were bisected by a road in 1873, followed by the Canadian Pacific Railroad which was completed in 1888. Its triumphalist attitude toward the indigenous inhabitants of the Fraser River is revealed in its trademark which shows naked Indians (right) helpless against the powerful forces of technology and civilization.


The traditional way of life of the Stó:lo came under seige when gold was discovered in 1858 and the Fraser River was invaded by miners. One of the earliest representations of its First Nations inhabitants was painted in 1868 (left) and depicts two dugout canoes made from cedar trees, one with a sail. The idyllic scene does not reflect the horrific "war of extermination" waged by the miners on the Stó:lo and their neighbours further up the Fraser Canyon, the Nlaka'pamux. Nor does it show the mercury poisoning and blasting from mining that destroyed riparian salmon habitat and diminished the aboriginal fishing resources.

CPR trademark, 1850 - 1885.

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Painting of Yale by Charles J. Way, c. 1890.
Photo: BC Archives

According to Stó:lo mythology, the rock was transformed by Xexá:ls and is sacred. It marks the home of T'itequo Spá:th, the underwater bear who is a stl'áleqem, or powerful spiritual being. Such transformer rocks bear witness to the ancient and complex relationship between the Stó:lo and their land and waters. The first known destruction of a Stó:lo transformer site occurred in 1862 by the Royal Engineers. Many other sacred sites were destroyed with subsequent railway and road construction through Stó:lo Territory.

A studio portrait of Chief Emmitt Liquatum of the Yale Indian Band was taken in 1881 (right). He was a prominent Stó:lo leader of the people then described as Tait Indians (Catholic Encylopeida, 1910) whose principle reserves were at Yale, Chehalis, Cheam and Hope. The lower Fraser Canyon beginning at Yale was the most densely populated place on the Northwest Coast due to the extraordinary fecundity of its aboriginal fishery. The ancient and complex system of fishing rights that had evolved here was violated in 1858 when tens of thousands of gold seeking Europeans invaded and provoked the infamous Fraser Canyon War.


The Fraser Canyon was first encroached upon by Europeans in 1848 when Fort Yale was founded at its entrance, close to an ancient aboriginal site with an archaeological record of some 9,000 years. An English artist painted Yale c. 1890 (left) as he imagined it might have appeared prior to the European invasion that began in 1859 with the Fraser Canyon Goldrush. The enormous rock in the middle of the river marked the beginning of the Fraser Canyon and blocked the passage of steam boats up the Fraser River from the coast. When the Royal Engineers arrived in 1862 to build the Cariboo road, they named it the "Lady Franklin Rock" after the wife of the British polar explorer.

Chief Emmitt Liquatum of Yale, 1881.
Photo: BC Archives

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"Indians fishing on the Fraser," 1909.
Photo: McCord Museum

Not until 1992 was the right of First Nations people to fish for food to conduct social and ceremonial traditions affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. One of the leading indigenous activists to challenge government fishing policies on the Fraser River is Cheam member June Quipp (right). She served as chief from 1999 to 2003 and comes from a large and distinquished family: her great great grandfather was Leiemacha, chief from 1808 to 1866; her father, Albert Douglas, was chief from 1952 to 1969; her mother, Edna Douglas, was a founding member of the path breaking Indian Homemakers Association; and her brother was chief for 31 years - Grand Chief Sam Douglas (1941 - 2001). After many years of asserting Cheam Aboriginal Rights on the Fraser River in Pilalt Territory, a victory came when over a dozen charges against Cheam fishers were dropped by the provincial court on 10 January 2007: Cheam Press Release.

  Chief Liquatum (above) was one of the last Stó:lo leaders to be able to manage the Fraser Canyon fishery according to indigenous property rights. In 1878 the federal government imposed its restrictive Fisheries Act; in 1884 it banned the potlatch ceremony by which fishing rights were decided; and in 1888 it criminalized fishing without a license. More oppressive rules accompanied the opening up of BC to mass immigration that occurred in 1885 with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Its passage through the Fraser Canyon resulted in the destruction of aboriginal burial grounds, fisheries and villages.

A glass lantern slide showing dip net fishing and dry racks on the Fraser River c. 1890 (left) was used in a 1909 railway campaign to promote the abundant resources and attract immigrants to BC. In 1913 and 1914 as a result of the blasting of a second railway on the other side of the Fraser Canyon, catastrophic rock slides destroyed the Indian fisheries, causing hardship and starvation.

June Quipp, Cheam activist, 2005.
Photo: Aaron Mercredi

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Coast Salish mountain goat blanket, 1909.
Photo: BC Archives

Weaving was an esteemed tradition and art form because of the time and care required to gather the wool shed by the mountain goat in the spring on mountain bushes. See: Coast Salish Weaving. Mountain goat blankets diminished in importance when the Hudson's Bay Company began trading in British factory made blankets. With the settlement of the Fraser River Valley after the 1858 gold rush, the goats of the Cascade Mountains gained international fame as big game trophies and a taxidermy trade began in Vancouver (right). At the same time, First Nations hunting grounds were increasingly reduced in size and restrictive European style game laws were imposed which benefited the newcomers with their introduced game species and "sportsman" ethics.


The Cheam are called "the mountain goat people" after an ancestor reputedly transformed into a mountain goat. They have a special connection to Lhilhequey (Mt Cheam) where the transformation occurred. They share the right to use resources in Pilalt Territory and some families inherit the knowledge needed to hunt mountain goats. On the complex role of the family in traditional and contemporary Stó:lo society, see: Brian Thom. On the left is a blanket woven from goat wool. Such blankets were highly valued trade and ceremonial objects, signifying wealth and social status and bringing power to the women who made them.

Mountain goat taxidermy, Vancouver, c. 1910.
Photo: Vancouver City Archives

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Sumas Lake was an important place of Stó:lo mythology and home to the Sumas people. With no concern for its aboriginal heritage, a reclamation project (right) was carried out in the 1920s to facilitate settlement, agriculture and highway development. The lake was drained and dyked, and the rich wetlands habitat that nutured waterfowl, migrating birds, fish and plants disappeared. See: Disappearing a Lake and Openings by Laura Cameron. Today Sumas Mountain is being mined by six aggregate companies and development plans include a residential area with over 40,000 homes.

Log truck at Rosedale, Pilalt Territory, 1920.
Photo: BC Archives


Sumas reclamation project, 1920.
Photo: BC Archives

Sumas members erected a blockade on 31 March 2003 to stop the gravel trucks from going through their reserve. According to Sumas Chief Dalton Silver, all of Sumas Mtn. should be a heritage site due to its many sacred caves. Of the 100s of transformer rocks in Stó:lo Territory, only the 9,000 year old Xa:ytem rock in Hatzic has been protected. In 1999 the Canadian National Railway blew up a transformer rock on the Yale Indian Reserve, destroying a valuable part of Stó:lo heritage. BC's Heritage Act applies only to human made artifacts and is easily circumvented and abused by developers and land speculators.

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Along with the reclamation of Sumas Lake in the 1920s, the old growth forests of the Fraser River Valley were clearcut logged (above). Today one rare remnant of an old growth forest survives in Pilalt Territory at Elk Creek (right). To prevent the Cattermole Timber Company from cutting down the last veteran trees here, the Cheam threatened direct action: The Peak (29 September 2003). In support of the Cheam activists, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee produced two videos showing how Cattermole is destoying spotted owl habitat at Anderson Creek and Elk Creek.

Pilalt Territory has been heavily encroached on by settler populations, by two railways on either side of the river, by the TransCanada Highway and by a variety of other infrastructures. No regard was given to the Cheam for these intrusions or for the "right of ways" through their reserves. The most recent threat to the Aboriginal Title and Rights of the Cheam comes from the property development plan of the Intrawest Company which includes a ski resort with 20 lifts on the eight mountain peaks surrounding Mount Cheam, as well as three condo villages and a golf course.

Cheam activist June Quipp has initiated many protests to assert her indigenous rights and protect the environment. She belongs to a group of courageous First Nations women who have organized stands, blockades and camps for similar purposes. Amnesty International has reported that in Canada conflicts about property and natural resources frequently endanger the lives and safety of aboriginal people, especially with the new pressure on Aboriginal Title and Rights brought about by the free trade agreement.


Ancient Douglas firs at Elk Creek, 2003.
Photo: Jeremy Williams

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Welcome figures by Susan Point, Vancouver Airport.
Photo: ku-xoxo

Musqueam artist Susan Point (right) received Canada's prestigious National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2004. Her sculpture "The Beaver and the Mink" is displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. This monumental carving in red cedar depicts a traditional Coast Salish legend about the origin of the salmon. Today the wild salmon along with the ancient cedar trees required for traditional carving techniques have virtually vanished from Musqueam Territory as a result of habitat degradation. Since 1874, the Musqueam have persistently protested the takeover of their land. See: Musequeam Land Claims History.

Canada promotes Northwest Coast art but does nothing to protect the last ancient cedar trees from the voracious BC forest industry or to save the endangered salmon stocks from gross mismanagement. The expression "sustainable development" - when used by government and corporations - is an oxymoron well understood by First Nations whose lands have been stolen in the name of civilization. Canada's entrenched lack of respect for Aboriginal Title and Rights is epitomized by the punitive jailing of First Nations elder Harriet Nahanee on 24 January 2007 for her principled stand against the ecological destruction of Eagleridge Bluffs.


The Stó:lo Nation Treaty Table produced a map amended 1 May 2006: Stó:lo Territory. On the difficulties of determining territories, boundaries and overlapping land claims in Coast Salish communities, see: Brian Thom. For a powerful visual presentation that confirms Aboriginal Title see: A Stó:lo - Coast Salish Historical Atlas ed. by K. Carlson. The atlas contains an appendix of the many Stó:lo petitions and protest letters including one dated 1875, signed "Alexis, Chief of Cheam."

Today two welcome figures by Musqueam carver Susan Point stand at the international arrivals terminal of the Vancouver Airport (left). These magnificent sculptures are carved from ancient red cedar trees. Northwest Coast carving is one of the world's great forms of art and represents a remarkable instance of a truly sustainable society. Not long ago, Musqueam Territory had an astonishingly rich coastal rainforest biodiversity, sustainably managed for thousands of years by its indigenous First Nations inhabitants.

Musqueam carver Susan Point, 2004.
Photo: anon

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