Indigenous Canadians whose ancestors were evicted from their homelands more than 100 years ago took part in a traditional hunt in Jasper National Park October 6-9.
The occasion marked an historic return to the land for members of the Simpcw First Nation, whose main village is based in Chu Chua, just north of Barriere, B.C., on the North Thompson River.
“This has to do with the Simpcw reestablishing a presence on the ground in different parts of our territory,” said Simpcw Chief Nathan Matthew, who was present for the activity but who was not one of the nine people hunting.
The Simpcw are part of the larger Secwepemc, or Shuswap Nation, whose traditional territory extends from south of Barrier to McBride, up to Grand Cache, close to Hinton and down towards Banff and Revelstoke. More than half of the Simpcw’s 700 members live on reserves.
Those taking part in the hunt—which included youth and elders—harvested six animals from near their traditional lands near the Snaring River in the east part of Jasper National Park. Parks Canada issued a closure in the area to facilitate the activities.
Jasper National Park Superintendent Alan Fehr said Parks Canada has a strong interest in helping Indigenous, Aboriginal and Metis communities reconnect with their traditional home lands.
“I understand this will be a surprise for some who have a vision of a national park as a nature preserve,” he said. “But I think what’s more important is that these are Indigenous people who lived in these areas prior to the national park.”
Some critics of the hunt suggested that if the idea was to reestablish a traditional presence, the groups should use traditional methods of harvesting—hand hewn spears and arrows, for example. But Matthew pointed out precedents agreed to by the Supreme Court are clear that the rights Indigenous Canadians hold “aren’t frozen in time.”
“We can drive cars, use telephones and hunt with 30-ought sixes,” Matthew said. “We can have scopes on our guns, we can use GPS, whatever. It’s been legally determined by Canadian court.”
Participants in the traditional harvest bagged six animals: three elk and three mountain sheep. Their agreement with Jasper National Park was originally for 10 animals, a number which also included whitetail deer (but did not include caribou, moose or mountain goats). Matthew said the hunters did not locate any deer.
“There were surprisingly few animals,” Matthew said.
What was also surprising—to some members of the public, anyway—was that there was no public consultation before the harvest. Fehr pointed out that Jasper National Park’s Management Plan recognizes First Nations and other Indigenous groups have these rights.
“We felt that was adequate,” he said.
Likewise, a thorough environmental assessment—normally an obligatory part of any new proposed use in the park—was foregone to in this case. Fehr said Jasper National Park used in-house studies to ensure species’ populations would not be impacted by the activities. Moreover, he reiterated that the park is looking at the bigger picture.
“This was a First Nation exercising their Section 35 [of the Constitution Act] traditional harvesting rights,” Fehr said. “It sends the message that Indigenous groups are welcome in Jasper and that reconciliation is something that’s important to us.”
Historic records indicate that when European explorers first made their way into what’s now known as the Three Valley Confluence in Jasper National Park, they encountered Secwepemc people near the Snaring River. When Jasper House was established on the Athabasca in the 1800s, some of the First Nations people who traded at that post were Shuswap. A Hudson’s Bay Company census from 1846 noted more than 40 Shuswap people living in the Jasper area, records indicate.
When the park was created, those people—and other Indigenous and Metis groups—were moved out. In that same general timeframe, disease brought by the new settlers, as well as conflict with neighbouring bands, decimated these communities. Another Secwepemc village site was located in what’s now known as Tete Jaune Cache, however, in 1916 the Simpcw were forcibly removed from there, too. Matthew said his ancestors were relocated nearly 300 kilometres away. There was no road, no rail. They were made to walk to Chu Chua, which is where they remain.
“We were fairly powerless legally, and physically,” Matthew said. “We were like that until recently.”
In 1982, Section 35 of the Constitution Act was entrenched into the Canadian Constitution. That document provides constitutional protection to the Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginals in Canada. Matthews said he understands that most Canadians don’t follow closely the developments at the Supreme Court level, but communities like his face the possibility of being erased from history if they don’t stand up for the rights that have been recognized by the highest court in the country.
“If we just listened to the negative voices we wouldn’t bother getting out of bed in the morning,” he said. “We wouldn’t seriously take on the notion and pursue the idea that we have the right to live in this world as First Nations Peoples. We have our territories, our governments and our culture and if we’re going to survive as First Nations we’ve got to carry on all of the activities that reflect those rights and responsibilities for ourselves and the natural resources in our territories.
“If we don’t do that, over time we’re going to lose it.”
Since 2006, the Jasper Aboriginal Forum has provided an opportunity for park management and communities with historic ties to JNP to work together on management-related issues. Fehr said conversations about a traditional hunt can be traced as far back as then.
“This type of reconciliation action is us honouring those treaties established long before the park was established, and the Constitution Act,” he said. “This is an important step for those communities, Parks Canada and Jasper National Park.”