Canada - saving the wilderness

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Jon Tinker

A small band of Aborginal people in the interior of British Colombia in Canada have won a famous victory in saving some of their ancestral land and protecting a unique 1000 square kilometre wilderness from the loggers. Jon Tinker reports.

The Nlaka'pamux nation has about 5,000 members, and its traditional territories cover much of British Columbia's south-central interior. The largest of the eleven Nlaka'pamux bands is the Lytton First Nation, about a thousand people now living mainly on Indian reserve land along the mighty Fraser river, in and around the small town of Lytton. For over 20 years the Lytton First Nation, a small Aboriginal people led by a determined woman called Ruby Dunstan, has been struggling to regain control of its most precious ancestral land: the Stein valley.

Ruby Dunstan, leader of the Lytton First Nation,has succeeded in saving her ancestral land.

The Stein, a tumbling torrent which drops into the Fraser from the west a few kilometres above Lytton, drains 1,070 square kilometres of wilderness: artic lakes, mountain glaciers, alpine meadows, steep canyons, wide floodplains and above all the unlogged, primary coniferous forest which Canadians call old-growth. Its fauna include grizzly and black bears, cougars, lynx, mountain goats, migratory salmon and trout. The Stein is one of the last remaining untouched watersheds in south-western British Columbia. I asked Chief Ruby Dunstan why it was so special to her people.

"Our elders always respected the Stein. When they went out there to pick berries, to gather fruits, to collect medicines, they would first go to a certain place, make their offerings to the Creator, smoke tobacco, offer prayers. And we were taught that you never ever take more than you need. Archaeologists have found that we Nlaka'pamux people were living in the Stein tens of thousands of years ago. We take our spirituality from the Stein, that is why the Stein is so important to us. It's just there."

Like most of Canada's wilderness, the Stein is Crown land, publicly-owned and effectively controlled by the provincial government, which in 1974 said it wanted to open the Stein to commercial logging. The Nlaka'pamux protested, and a ten-year moratorium was agreed. In 1983, Ruby Dunstan was elected Chief of the Lytton First Nation. During her tenure, 38 valleys in Nlaka'pamux traditional territory were logged. In spite of its inaccessibility, the Stein could not escape for ever.

Soon after her election she was invited to the Queen Charlotte Islands, by the elders of the Haida Gwai people, who were also trying to protect their traditional lands from logging. "Those elders were arrested and sent to gaol, for standing up for what they believed." The memory still makes Ruby Dunstan angry. "They treat us like we're the invaders. God, we're human beings, treat us as such. I decided then I would never allow my people to be thrown in jail for what they know is right. There are always other options in life. You just have to find them."

Gradually, Chief Dunstan found those other options. She built alliances with conservationists, talked to the media, and during the 1980s made the Stein first into a provincial and then a national issue. In 1985 she started the annual Stein Festivals, bringing ecologists, loggers, First Nation elders and other experts together in a public forum to debate the Stein's future. Five hundred people came to the first festival; the last, in 1989, with support from the music world, attracted 26,000.

In 1987, the local First Nations issued the Stein Declaration, stating their determination to preserve the Stein as wilderness, for all time. The same year, the provincial government declared half the valley a wilderness area. But Ruby Dunstan was not totally happy with the way things were going. "We were getting support from environmentalists, but they wanted to take over, to leave us out of the picture. I said stand behind us, but you will not take the forefront, it's our territory. We're not just going to clam up and disappear."

"The government said we had to prove the land was ours. How do we know it's ours? We know. Our parents, our grandparents, taught us. As their grandparents taught them. Just as I'm now teaching my grandchildren."

© Philippe Henry / Still Pictures

In 1989 the Lytton First Nation formally declared the whole Stein watershed a park, and named it The Stein Valley Tribal Heritage Park, a Living Museum of Cultural and Natural History. Although in official eyes this designation had no validity, the First Nations giving the Stein a new name had deep, almost mystical, significance. "We already knew what the Stein was," explains Ruby Dunstan. "But in order to protect it from white society we gave it a name, a name which was the best way we could interpret what the elders were telling us about it."

In 1991, Ruby Dunstan ended her eight-year term as Chief, and soon afterwards British Columbia had a new left-of-centre government, more sympathetic to Aboriginal concerns, and pledged to double provincial parks from 6 per cent to 12 per cent of British Columbia's land area. A government official told Dunstan that environmentalists were pushing for the Stein to be declared a new provincial park. "I said no bloody way. I said you can't do anything with the Stein unless you talk to the Indians. They said the public wouldn't like this. I said tough beans."

Serious negotiations finally got under way in 1995, and by November a deal was done. The Stein would indeed become a provincial park: the Lytton First Nation agreed that this status offered the most watertight legal protection. But the Stein was to have an Aboriginal name: the Nlaka'pamux Heritage Park. And it would be co-managed by British Columbia Parks and the Lytton First Nation. The remarkable "co-operative management agreement" signed in 1995 by provincial premier Mike Harcourt gives trusteeship and control to the Nlaka'pamux people.

Traditional First Nation uses of the Stein are confirmed: hunting, fishing, berry-picking, harvesting medicinal plants, bark stripping, root digging and others. Park information materials are to incorporate "Nlaka'pamux legends, myths, histories and teachings...chiefs' burials, vision questing, puberty rites, pictograph sites, spirit caves, power places..." A joint management board is now running the park, with three representatives each from government and the Lytton band.

At present, the Stein has no roads at all, though there are some rough trails. What new facilities would Chief Dunstan like to see? "The bare minimum. Outhouses (toilets), first aid posts, an information centre for hikers. As long as I'm alive, as long as the elders are listened to, we will leave the Stein valley as it is today."

"I hope that visitors will learn to respect the ways of my people, and enjoy what we have enjoyed for thousands of years. What you and I have talked about today could fit into a cherry seed, compared to all that people should know about the Stein."

Jon Tinker is a writer and consultant, and senior associate with the Sustainable Development Research Institute at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. He was founder and president of the Panos Institute until 1993.