Community rallies around Okanagan fishermen in dispute over land rights

People gathered to march for their inherent fishing rights, and celebrate the removal of the fence blocking river access.

Okanagan community members gathered together on Tuesday at Kenyon Park and marched to Okanagan Falls to stand in solidarity with the local Indigenous fishermen who say they have been blocked safe access to their traditional fishing spot for over four years.

Charlene Roberds, an Okanagan Nation member and spokesperson, opened Tuesday’s rally, “To celebrate a small win with that fence being removed. We, as women, take it very seriously when it comes to the safety of our fishers, to the safety of our children and Elders who want to go to the river and practice our inherent right to gather fish for our food. That’s what we’re here to do, and to celebrate open access to the river.” 

Charlene Roberds standing in solidarity at Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ (Little Falls), also known as Okanagan Falls, after Tuesday’s rally. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

“We’ve worked on getting the salmon back here, the Okanagan Tribal Council, the ONA, for decades,” said Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie. 

“Now we’ve got them back this far, we just can’t believe we’re having to hassle with a landowner, but that’s not the story here. The story here is that we do have fishing rights there, we will continue to practice those fishing rights, and our families depend on the salmon.”

“We are salmon people, so it’s only right that we are here to advocate and to push our inherent right to fish the Okanagan salmon here,” he added.

Tensions began to particularly rise in recent weeks between Melody Walker, whose family owns the property, and local fisherman and former Penticton Indian Band Chief John Kruger. He believes the family placed cacti on the fence surrounding the fishing spot to keep him and other fishermen away. They typically jump over this fence to be able to reach the river and fish. The dispute led to the removal of the fence on July 20, overseen by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

In prior statements to IndigiNews, Walker claimed her family’s property reaches the water line. She added that the Okanagan fishermen are “trespassers.” Walker stated that she does not want anyone accessing what she claims is her property due to concerns of litter, vehicle traffic and plant damage, along with safety reasons.

B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) stated, in an email to IndigiNews, “The Ministry asserts that any form of fish collection or fishing that ONA members undertake at the site is consistent with the rights outlined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.”

So although the fence removal does not resolve the land dispute, it is a start. 

Lucas Flundra and father John Kruger at Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

When asked at the rally how he felt about his community standing in solidarity with him, Kruger said with a smile, “Grateful.”

“To see all the support come out, it picked me up,” he said. “The DFO and the province, working with the Okanagan Nation, this is just a small step right now and there is going to be more things to come, I believe that.” 

For a detailed report on the dispute and the events leading up to the removal of the fence, check out Kelsie Kilawna’s story here.

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