It has been six years since the Tsilhqot’in Nation won title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land in the Chilcotin Plateau west of Williams Lake, and the expiry of temporary access agreements for long-established ranch and resort operators has left them wondering if they can continue.
Felix Schellenberg has run Rafter 25 Ranch for 41 years, now an organic beef producer that has expanded to include a popular butcher shop in Vancouver called Pasture to Plate Natural Products. He says the May 31 expiry of “bridging agreements” with the province and Ottawa since the landmark 2014 Supreme Court of Canada award of title to the Tsilhqot’in, Xeni Gwet’in and member bands jeopardizes the future of his operation and others in the region.
“People are feeling very insecure and rightly so,” Schellenberg said in an interview June 2. “One ranch down Tatla Lake Valley were told by the Nemiah Band not to turn their cattle out. Some of the lodge owners on Chilko Lake are refused access over first nations land onto their deeded land.”
Cattle grazing on Crown land has been a fundamental part of ranching in the region for more than a century. Schellenberg and owners of nearby Chilko Ranch, Newton Ranch and Tatla Lake Ranch have repeatedly written to federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, calling for a say in implementation of the territorial transfer, along with the West Chilcotin Tourism Association representing lodge and tourism operators. They say they support Indigenous title but the process has been kept secret from them, similar to federal-provincial-aboriginal discussions for the Wet’suwet’en territory in northwest B.C. and caribou habitat protection areas over large areas of northeast B.C.
“Over 50 per cent of our ranching operations depend on Crown land,” Schellenberg said. “During the summer for about six months we graze our cattle on Crown land, and we have licences for that and we pay our grazing fees. Now at least the Crown land is on the negotiating table, and some of the private land, I don’t know if it is as well, because there is total secrecy around the whole thing.”
Premier John Horgan said June 3 he is aware of the concerns of property owners and Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson are “working through that. We want to make sure we do that in the best interests of everybody, the Tsilhqot’in, the local land owners and of course the broader community.”
The Indigenous relations ministry also issued a statement to Black Press June 3.
“There were 10 grazing permits issued under the terms of the grazing bridging agreement that expired on Dec. 31, 2019,” the ministry said. “Following communication with tenure holders, there is one grazing licence that will continue for 2020 with an amended area. There are also two grazing licences that continue unchanged.
“The expiry of the bridging agreements on May 31, 2020 also affected park use permits. The province is in consultation with the Xeni Gwet’in and the Tsilhqot’in about continuing the park use permits in the title lands, and will be reaching out to park use permit holders about the status of their permits. Other than the park use permits and the one grazing licence, no tenures have been altered or reduced. The fee structure for permit holders has not changed.”
Some resort operators have asked to be bought out so they can leave the region. Those talks have continued with the B.C. ministries of Indigenous relations and forests, which announced the latest working session with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government had taken place May 29. Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua says property owners in the region need to accept that the territory is now owned by them.
“Xeni Gwet’in has made huge sacrifices over the past five years to try and make sure that the declaration of aboriginal title did not disrupt people’s livelihoods, or access to parks and campsites,” Lulua said in the B.C. government statement June 1.
Lulua told the Williams Lake Tribune at the end of February that his council has been working on potential buyouts, after taking over roads and permitting for water, wildlife, fishing and access from the province.
“There are guidelines on how they get bought out and there are things that are being argued here that are understandable from them and from us,” Lulua said. “We are willing to buy any of these properties, but at the end of the day, they are asking for hardship dollars and we don’t pay hardship dollars.”
The transfer of Crown land has come with $55 million from Ottawa for Tsilhqot’in capacity building and transition.
One of the lodge owners is Brian McCutcheon, who operates ROAM Adventures Inc. at Bear Camp on Chilko Lake. He sees little hope for his business under the title transfer, and has asked Xeni Gwet’in for written authority to grant fisheries and other permits.
“It gives federal fisheries, fisheries buildings and even enforcement and control of a federal waterway to the Xeni Gwet’in under the auspices of a tri-partite agreement,” McCutcheon said. “This third party agreement effectively expropriates our ability to do business in the Chilko Lake region. Two thirds of the businesses and ranches will be terminated with no explanation or compensation.”
The ministry statement said “the province is not aware of any cases where landowner access to private lands has been an issue.”