Red Deer Billie Pierre of Nlaka’pamux Nation, left, and Secwépemc Matriarch April Thomas outside of the Kamloops Law Courts building in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) on May 2, following the second day of their sentencing hearing. Photo by Aaron Hemens
During a sentencing for two Indigenous land defenders, a B.C. Supreme Court judge described the women’s lifelong obligation to protect their territories as a belief system not “materially different than the beliefs or views of most other Canadians.”
On May 19 at a courthouse in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) in Secwepemcúl’ecw, Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick sentenced Secwépemc Matriarch April Thomas to 32 days in jail and Red Deer Billie Pierre of Nlaka’pamux Nation to 40 days of house arrest.
Prior to her decision, Fitzpatrick heard evidence from Secwépemc knowledge-keepers about the nation’s ancestral laws, ceremonies and generational connections to the land and water.
However, in the end, she grouped together Indigenous land stewardship with “Canadian” environmentalism and boiled the decision to oppose the pipeline down to a personal choice.
“In B.C., there are laws and a regulatory scheme — both federal and provincial — that reflect the public’s view: the protection of the environment, our lands and waters, is important to our society generally, which includes both our Indigenous citizens and non-Indigenous citizens,” said Fitzpatrick.
“Even accepting that Indigenous people generally have a duty and obligation to protect the land and water, that does not mean that they have a duty to oppose Trans Mountain’s pipeline.”
‘I acted in the heat of the moment’
Between Oct. 15 and 17, 2020, Thomas, Pierre and six other Indigenous and non-Indigenous land defenders were arrested and later charged with criminal contempt for disrupting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project’s (TMX) development in Secwepemcúl’ecw. All eight have been sentenced by Fitzpatrick, with six sentences handed out in February.
Thomas and Pierre were arrested on Oct. 15, following a water ceremony by Secwépemcetkwe (the Thompson River) in Sqeq’petsin (Mission Flats area) that escalated into people breaching the nearby TMX injunction-protected construction area.
Secwépemc Matriarch April Thomas, left, and Red Deer Billie Pierre of Nlaka’pamux Nation conduct a livestream outside of the Kamloops Law Courts building in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) on May 1, ahead of the first day of their sentencing hearing. Photo by Aaron Hemens
During this month’s sentencing, Crown counsel Trevor Shaw — who replaced Crown prosecutor Neil Wiberg in this latest hearing — told the court that Pierre had zap-strapped herself to a TMX bulldozer and refused to leave, leading to four police officers carrying her from the area.
The court also heard that Thomas had climbed atop the bulldozer that Pierre was zap-strapped to, which she said was done to protect Pierre from a TMX worker who allegedly started the machine while she was still attached to it. After that, the court heard, Thomas went on top of an excavator in an attempt to take a selfie.
“Maybe I acted in the heat of the moment,” Thomas said in her submissions to the court, calling the selfie attempt “a stupid mistake.”
Four of the land defenders, including Thomas, have now been released on bail and are now pending the hearing of their appeals against their convictions and sentences.
Initially, the sentencing hearing for Thomas and Pierre was scheduled for February, but it was adjourned to May as the two awaited the completion of Gladue reports, which are pre-sentencing reports that detail the lived experiences of an Indigenous person, and are to be taken into consideration when being sentenced by a judge.
During the sentencing hearing between May 1 and 3, the court heard details from each of Thomas’s and Pierre’s Gladue reports — which included the ongoing impacts of colonialism, the effects of the residential “school” system on their families and upbringing, a loss of connection to their communities, cycles of abuse and experiences in the foster care system.
Their Gladue reports had also included references to an academic article by Graham Mayeda, which argues that injunctions and contempt of court proceedings are not appropriate in the context of Indigenous law.
Shaw took issue with the article, saying that it doesn’t assist the court in determining an appropriate punishment to impose. The defence counsel — which consisted of Benjamin Isitt representing Thomas and Rachel Smith representing Pierre — submitted an adjournment application, in order for Thomas and Pierre to have more time to gather witnesses to support their claim that they were fulfilling their duty to Indigenous law and to the land on their offence date.
The application was denied by Fitzpatrick. As a result, Secwépemc knowledge-keepers Miranda Dick and Mike McKenzie were called in on May 1 and 2, respectively, as last-minute witnesses to speak to Secwépemc laws, duties, decision-making structures, ceremonies and the obligation to protect the land.
‘We have to speak for our salmon’
As a Secwépemc matriarch with more than 20 years of experience carrying out ceremonies in her homelands, Dick detailed the nation’s matrilineal hereditary structure, as well as the role of ceremonies and the obligations of matriarchs around caring for their families, communities and the nation.
It’s at sacred fire ceremonies where Dick said that Elders provide testimonies on water and usage, and where Youth speak on what their duties are to land issues pertaining to protection.
“A sacred fire consists of setting tobacco, meaning setting intention,” she explained. “Whether that be any outcome from setting a sacred fire, that is then your duty. That becomes your obligation to the land, water and the watershed areas as well.”
Secwépemc Matriarchs Miranda Dick and April Thomas, alongside Secwépemc Hereditary Chief Saw-ses, sing a drum song outside of the Kamloops Law Courts building in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) on May 1, ahead of the first day of Thomas’s and Red Deer Billie Pierre’s sentencing hearing on May 1. Photo by Aaron Hemens
She noted that for many Secwépemc people, they go through a ceremony that binds them to speaking and caring for their salmon relatives.
“Since our salmon cannot speak, we have to speak for our salmon,” she said. “Meaning that if they’re in harm, we will voice them if there is harm. We will voice concern, and from there, you make your best judgement on that.”
With matriarchs being bound by an obligation to the matrilineal hereditary structure, Dick said that it would be difficult for Thomas to make decisions for herself when responding to B.C. laws in accordance with Secwépemc law, for which decisions are typically made in consultation with the heads of the family.
“It’s almost like a freeze or flight moment where you make your own decision based on duty, obligation, as well as your role to the land and being a woman, making your own decision based off of that,” said Dick.
In her submissions, Thomas said that she had no remorse for her actions on her offence date.
“I’m only doing what I was taught, what I grew up knowing. And that is to protect the land,” she said.
‘A responsibility that we have above all else’
While the oral evidence provided by Dick was deemed admissible in the court, both Shaw and Fitzpatrick did not consider it to be expert evidence due to concerns around objectivity and impartiality.
Dick herself was one of eight land defenders to have been sentenced by Fitzpatrick, who described the decision by the defence counsel to call her as a witness “an interesting, if not odd, choice.”
Secwépemc land defenders have meanwhile called into question the court’s apparent protection of corporate interests and what they’ve previously called “blatant bias against Indigenous communities and in favour of TMX pipeline’s illegal encroachment on Indigenous territories.”
Secwépemc territories were never given up by its original inhabitants, but colonized by “British Columbia” and “Canada.” Canada now owns the Trans Mountain pipeline and the B.C. Supreme Court operates under provincial law.
In his witness testimony, McKenzie — who has been a board member and Youth representative with the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council (SNTC) — said that he was raised by knowledge keepers for his entire life, and worked closely with SNTC’s Elders’ Council.
“The Elders’ Council have never changed their position against this pipeline. They’ve always been against it,” said McKenzie.
“They’ve actually tasked our people to stand up to it in all ways possible — whether it’s the courts, legal, to bring lawsuits — whatever way possible really to stand against the project.”
He shared one of the words for stewardship — yecminme7 — which he explained means from birth, you are taught how to become a caretaker of the land.
“It speaks to a responsibility that we have above all else to take care of the land, and how we fit in our laws,” he said.
He presented the court with the Save the Fraser Declaration from 2010, a document that was signed in Secwépemc and Coast Salish territories by more than 40 Indigenous nations in the Fraser River Watershed.
The Save The Fraser Declaration from 2010, which was signed by by more than 40 Indigenous nations in the Fraser River Watershed. (Source: SaveTheFraser.ca via KAIROS Canada)
While the declaration was designed to defend the lands and waters from the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project, McKenzie said that consideration was given to whether that pipeline could shift to a new name in the future.
“We were concerned that because the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline could become another pipeline, leadership was tasked to ensure that all pipelines across these waters were included in this declaration,” said McKenzie.
‘I followed in my own ancestors’ footsteps’
Following the testimonies provided by Dick and McKenzie, defence lawyer Smith said that the evidence detailing an Indigenous person’s duty to the land is relevant to sentencing, and should be considered.
“How is that materially different from a person who’s born and bred environmentalist, who’s considered it their moral duty to do what they can to protect the land?” asked Fitzpatrick.
When Smith referenced the lengthy-history of an Indigenous person’s connection to the land, Fitzpatrick noted that she was “pretty sure” that her ancestors in Ireland, who were potato farmers, were connected to the land, too.
“There’s a spectrum of the past history of what connects an individual to the land and to their nation. It’s something that can’t be simply equated to a passion for environmentalism,” Smith replied.
“I submit that it goes beyond any interest in a specific cause, and it becomes a part of an identity of an individual. These laws are a part of them, part of their community, part of their history and families.”
In her submissions, Pierre outlined the Nlaka’pamux Nation’s historical alliances with the Secwépemc people, referencing the 1858 Fraser Canyon War and the 1910 Memorial to Sir Wilfred Laurier.
“Anything I’ve done here, I followed in my own ancestors’ footsteps,” said Pierre. “I worked with people who my ancestors worked with their ancestors.”
‘Realize you too are connected to this land’
While acknowledging that she sometimes acts in the heat of the moment, Thomas said in her submissions that her actions follow what she believes is right, and is guided by the teachings of her Elders, her grandparents who raised her, and her ancestors.
“I don’t think you realize how much it hurts to see your land being destroyed and destructed right before your eyes,” she said.
She highlighted that the same waterways that she grew up swimming in and harvesting from, now give her kids infections when swimming in them, and that their water levels have been depleted down to almost nothing.
“Those things scare me. They scare me, for my kids and my grandkids and the next seven generations to come because seven generations ago, we had it all. Now, our people have nothing,” she said.
“We can’t even make a decision on our own territory without that being impeded by this court system.”
While considering Gladue factors and the belief systems held by Thomas and Pierre, Fitzpatrick, in her decision, said illegally breaching the injunction zone is one’s own personal choice.
“At its core, the contenders’ position in this hearing that their Indigenous beliefs for the land and water means they have a lesser moral culpability, is a conflation of their broad view and obligation to protect the lands and waters with their personal choice, that they interpret that belief or obligation as a requirement to oppose Trans Mountain’s pipeline, and to do so illegally,” said Fitzpatrick.
In her submissions, Thomas addressed Fitzpatrick and said that protecting the land, the water and the salmon is more than just putting bodies on the line. Protection, she continued, means ceremonies, songs, dancing, smudging and prayer.
“Everything we do and pray, we do it for all people,” said Thomas.
“I’ve even said many prayers for you, Judge FItzpatrick, that you find it in your heart and that you find your spirit, and realize that you too are connected to this land — we all are.”
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In photos: Indigenous children and Youth take the spotlight at VIFW 2023
The future looked bright for the next generation at this year’s Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW), as children and Youth showcased their talents in modelling and design.
The event took place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre over four nights last week — each with a different theme. VIFW is an annual event that began in 2017 as a way to promote and celebrate Indigenous fashion, arts and culture.
The third night on Nov. 22 had a theme of Indigenous Futures. After a territorial welcome, the lights dimmed and music vibrated the walls of the venue as Indigenous Youth from the Girls Who LEAP (Lead to Empower and Act with Purpose) program walked in their power on the runway.
As part of a mentorship program with VIFW, each girl designed and created their own shawl to showcase — embodying their hopes, dreams, and respective cultures. Their work was paired with the work of Nisg̱a’a designer Kevin Gosnell Designs.
Girls Who LEAP is a non-profit in “Vancouver” that provides leadership opportunities for Youth in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview Woodlands communities – both of which have a high population of urban Indigenous People. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Partnering with Indigenous models from Supernaturals Modelling, the Youth smiled, held back tears, and waved to their friends in the audience. Family members cheered for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
For Kailani, a Youth who participated in the LEAP program, being mentored to create a shawl for VIFW was a dream come true, and a way to honour her family and culture.
Kailani says she wanted to honour her name, which means sea and sky in Hawaiian, as the inspiration for her design. “I created a blue sun with red, yellow, orange and purple arrows mimicking the course of the sunset. The blue sun represents the meeting point of the sea and the sky,” says Kailani. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“I grew up seeing my aunt dance in her beautiful regalia,” said Kailani.
“My aunt Rebecca influences me especially because many designs are based around powwow culture.”
Kailani’s aunt is Kwakiutł, Dzawada’enuxw and Skwxwú7mesh designer Rebecca Baker-Grenier, who also showcased her clothing designs during VIFW. Another aunt of Kailani’s, Himalkas Pam Baker, also showcased her fashions.
Girls Who LEAP models show off their shawls on the runway. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The founder and artistic director of VIFW, Joleen Mitton, was in the audience, dancing and cheering for the Youth and their creations.
Her work in creating VIFW was recently featured in the short film Ancestral Threads, which premiered at HotDocs in 2023.
The behind the scenes look at how VIFW began, and all of the work that goes into curating a show, and the people Mitton has brought along with her.
The former international model, who is Cree, has deep roots in “Vancouver” mentoring Indigenous Youth. For Mitton, she credits her kokum for inspiring her to serve the community.
Joleen Mitton (front), the founder of VIFW, poses on the runway during the Girls Who LEAP finale. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Opening the show, Mitton wore a jumpsuit with the slogan “the future is Indigenous” on the back before changing looks later in the night.
“You’ve got to appreciate the outfit,” she said. “This was made by the Youth. They are our future.”
Angela Howe-Parrish of Choke Cherry Creek, who is Apsaalooke (Crow) and Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), shared her new Apsáalooke Collection, which featured vibrant colours, geometric patterns and Elk tooth prints. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Owen Unruh, a Two-Spirit Cree model, dancer and content creator, in Choke Cherry Creek Designs. Photo by Aaron Hemens
During a showcase for the Heiltsuk-owned streetwear brand HSTRYMKRS, models wearing jerseys, cargos and statement-making jewelry by Copper Canoe Woman danced to hip hop music and hyped up the crowd as they walked the runway, prompting loud cheers.
Fashion Brand HSTRYMKRS shared spray paint designs that read “Young Matriarch” and “The Youth are the Future.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
The cheers became louder as a model wearing a graffiti-painted gown emblazoned with the words “The Youth are Sacred” and “The Youth are the Future” walked out with three children who wore shirts with the slogans “Youth Matriarch.”
A model with HSTRYMKRS poses on the runway in front of cheerful audience members. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“How many more times am I going to cry tonight?” said the event’s host Kiefer Collison, after the showcase was over. “That was absolutely beautiful.”
A spectator raises their fist in the air in solidarity with HSTRYMKRS models. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The themes for the other nights of VIFW were the opening Red Dress Event, All My Relations and Spirit of the West Coast.
“My people, you are so beautiful and so strong,” said Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who gave a territorial welcome with his children Cedar and Kayah.
“This is a celebration, because how we look is to the future.”
The show was opened by Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) and his children Cedar and Kayah. “We’re taking it back,” says George. “This is a presentation of our future, of who we are.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
With files from Aaron Hemens and Cara McKenna
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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