By Julia Magsombol 

Local Journalism Initiative 

[email protected]

After 140 years, ?Akisq’nuk First Nation reached a settlement with Canada regarding the Elkhorn Ranch, 320 acres (129 hectares) of land in Windermere Creek. 

The Pioneer spoke to ?Akisq’nuk First Nation’s Chief Donald Sam, and Lands, Resources and Infrastructure Director Lorne Shovar. 

“The land was used traditionally for various things: harvesting animals, getting water from a creek in the lake, and so on, additionally there were cabins and corrals that were occupied by ?Akisq’nuk members” said Shovar. 

Chief Sam added, “The Lands are not just the not just dirt you can hold in your hand, but it’s so much more. In our language we call it ?akxam’is q’api qapsins which means, really everything. We refer to it as all living things.” And it should demonstrate the lack of Comittment the Province and BC had in treating indigenous people with dignity and respect. They allowed the theft of our homelands right up to the surveying of this Reserve in 1886. This speaks to the need of restoring the honor of the Crown According to the Government of Canada, this land should have been reserved for the band but was wrongfully granted to a settler in 1883.

Up until the 1951, it was illegal for First Nations to raise money to seek redress for land claims or hiring a lawyer. The initial land claim was submitted in 1994, and the government rejected it by 2011. In 2013, they filed a tribunal claim for a decision on the validity of its specific claim and compensation.

In 2017, an oral evidence hearing took place, where Elders from the ?Akisq’nuk shared with the tribunal how the dispute affected Kootenay people. Canada finally accepted the claim for negotiation. 

A compensation deal for these losses was offered to the ?Akisq’nuk First Nation. 

“For us it’s not just financial transaction from a parcel of land, but we were asked to accept money for lands we refer to as Mother Earth, to accept a monetary settlement on behalf of our people who have passed on, for our people here today, and for pur future generations “ Chief Sam noted. We had to check in with our people through a referendum- a vote.

Although the band reached a settlement for the land, it doesn’t fully have control of it.

“We don’t get the lands back through the settlement, only a financial settlement. The province of BC and the federal government established that specific claims tribunal, but there is no way for them to process transferring the lands to us,” explained Chief Sam. “The title or the ownership of the lands? We don’t get that.” 

He also said they can look at other lands and add them to their reserve, but the Elkhorn Ranch is private property, meaning someone owns the property. 

There is no other way for them to completely take possession of the land unless the owners decide to sell it to them or donation, and it would not be easy in the current pricing market. “Our religious and cultural values do not measure on a financial scale. We can not calculate the net present value the way you could with western values.”   Shovar said they are getting an apology. “They admitted to some wrongdoing. And then they agreed to negotiate a settlement to that claim. That’s what happened in this case.” 

With the loss of land, the Government of Canada compensated the ?Akisq’nuk First Nation $28 million — a massive amount of money.  

(Logo courtesy of ?Akisq’nuk First Nation)

Chief Sam said they established a task force to check in with band members about how they should spend the money they received. 

“We want to make sure that our people are safe. We also want to increase the quality of life, we long for prosperity for our people” said the Chief. 

He added they want to invest the funds in a way that First Nations people wouldn’t just purchase physical things but instead foster trust and value in the community. 

“We want to be strategic. What do we need? How can we convert those dollars back into some of those cultural or intrinsic values that are affected by injustices? We want an economy where our families can be gainfully employed, and from their wages, they can take care of their families. People can be here in the community supporting each other. We are looking out for a plan for the future before we spend the money,” Chief Sam explained.

It is important to note that the money the band received resulted from years of negotiations. The amount of the compensation primarily reflects the loss and value of the land. 

“Did the government do enough? No, not really, because it is forcing us to change our world views into a strictly financial transaction. I don’t think there’s a dollar figure that can do justice,” the Chief said. 

“We’re always told just to get over it. But our stories and our songs and our everything is in our land. I don’t know if we’ll ever get over it. It’s impossible. They were wrong. Pre-empting the lands (on Indigenous lands) out from under Indigenous people was wrong. Assuming all of Ktunaxa ?amak?is and killing The people that opposed but injustices are finally coming to light.” 

As the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches on Sept. 30, Shovar and Chief Sam explained that the land and the settlement must include teaching and learning the values and connections of Indigenous Peoples. 

“In our communities, we still have a lot of disparities Health, incarceration, education, employment; when those start turning right, then we’ll start believing . . . that’s reconciliation, and we can’t forget that,” both explained. 

They admitted they could not easily teach the government to understand their values and connections. But they believe that if they could teach these to their nations and how significant these things are, it would make sense to most people who listen to their stories.

“I’m hoping that we’re empowering community members to be able to speak their truth,” Chief Sam pointed out.

Shovar said they implemented these plans in ways that will help their community move forward into the future.

Chief Sam noted it’s important for ?Akisq’nuk First Nations people to learn their history.

“The Elkhorn Ranch is the heart of a traditional territory. We will be challenged; it’s bound to happen. And so it’s important to know your history and where you come from, the perpetuation of who you are well into the future.” 

Both Shovar and the Chief reminisce about the old days on the ranch. 

“I guess it brings me to closure; we were wronged over there, but now, with our kids grown up, they’ll recognize that there’s injustice. But they should not give up, and they should keep on fighting,” Chief Sam said. 

For more information about the land claim, visit https://www.canada.ca/en/crown-indigenous-relations-northern-affairs/news/2023/08/akisqnuk-first-nation-and-canada-reach-settlement-agreement-on-elkhorn-ranch-specific-claim.html