Okanagan Falls fishermen
Local fishermen Pyas and Quentin Scott at Okanagan Falls. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.
Okanagan

Okanagan Nation fisherman accused of trespassing in dispute over traditional fishing grounds

John Kruger of Okanagan Nation was fishing in Okanagan Falls, B.C. when he was approached by a woman on private property asking him to leave

Tensions began to rise recently over river access between a property owner, and Okanagan Nation fisherman and former Penticton Indian Band Chief John Kruger when he was fishing in Okanagan Falls, B.C. 

Since time immemorial, the nets of the Syilx Peoples have dipped into the waters of the river located in what is traditionally known by the Syilx People as Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ, which means “Little Falls.” In current day, its English name is Okanagan Falls. The river that runs alongside Okanagan Falls is known as Okanagan River. 

But if you were to make your way across the bridge over Okanagan River in Okanagan Falls on Highway 97, you would come upon the lot of the Okanagan Falls Irrigation District (OFID) as you’re going south towards Osoyoos, B.C. This area falls under the Region of Similkameen-Okanagan.

This is where fishermen, including Kruger, will typically park. On Monday, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) removed a fence surrounding the area. Fishermen had been jumping over it in order to walk along the river to get to the fishing spot, as indicated in the map below. This was the only way to reach the public access area down the embankment. 

Okanagan Falls map
The orange line indicates the trail used by the fishermen to access their fishing spot to the south of the dam as confirmed by John Kruger, an Okanagan fisherman. You can also see the fence line that was fencing in the Walker family’s alleged property. The Walker home is on top of the hillside there. Photo via Google Maps.

On July 14, Kruger says he was making his way down to Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ to begin catching a few salmon since the run came early this year. 

“I backed in and I usually have to jump over the fence there because that part is owned by the regional district, but we have access through the water, the watermark, to go fishing on that side,” says Kruger. 

Kruger says after he was done fishing and was returning to his vehicle, he jumped over the fence again and noticed a sticky substance on his hands. He says he was then approached by an unknown woman on a property nearby, owned by the Walker family. Kruger began to film their altercation as seen in the video here. He says the woman then told him that he was on private property, but he said to her that he was within his rights to be fishing there. 

Since this video was shared by Kruger on July 14, the woman – a tenant at the time and unrelated to the Walkers – has moved out of the Walker residence. In a Facebook message on July 18, her daughter shared with Kruger that her mother felt remorse for the entire dispute. 

“I am happy to say that one of the Ladies has stopped any efforts to block the Fishers and has left the place down OK Falls,” Kruger shared in a Facebook post over the weekend.

“I found out that she left Wednesday afternoon. … She got caught up in the Drama and has come to realize she needs to stop. … [She] has apologized and hopes for reparations…this is Good news and will continue to Pray for her.”

Okanagan Nation Alliance team
L-R: ONA Executive Director Pauline Terbasket, Okanagan fisherman and hunter John Kruger and ONA Fisheries manager Howie Wright. Photo By Kelsie Kilawna.

Following the original altercation, however, Kruger says that day he had no choice but to give all his salmon away because he couldn’t touch the fish with what was to him, at the time, an unknown substance on his hands. That substance was identified by the woman in the video as Tanglefoot, a sticky ant repellent. He says he was unable to wash it off his hands with water, and that they also then carried a smell. 

“I went home and it took like half an hour to get that stuff off my hands, and I was really, really upset and I was really hurt, actually,” he says. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

Kruger posted the video of their altercation twice, a second time to share a better quality version. The video has almost 280 total shares on Facebook, and 19,000 total views as of publication.

Kruger has shared on Facebook other instances of what he believes have been efforts to halt the Okanagan Nation fishers from accessing their fishing spot. 

When Kruger was done fishing the following day and was preparing to leave, for example, he found nails behind his tires. He feels they were purposely placed there. 

He has since filed a complaint with the RCMP in response to the several attempts at inhibiting his ability to safely fish.

In a statement to IndigiNews, RCMP Const. James Grandy said they have responded several times to this location.

“Disputed property lines are not a policing matter, however our officers may attend to simply keep the peace and make sure all parties are safe,” says Grandy. “The disputed land is being managed by the Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia.”

John Kruger
Kruger holds up nails he says he found behind his tires while parked in the Okanagan Falls Irrigation District lot adjacent to the Walker residence. Photo submitted by John Kruger.

Still, Kruger says that Okanagan fishers have faced challenges for over four years getting access to the site.

“The situation is our people need to catch salmon, we need to catch our salmon safely,” he says.

Kruger says there had been a good relationship with the Walker family in the past. But the dispute has carried on with Melody Walker, the private resident whose family owns the property.

“We’ve tried to create a relationship, unfortunately, that some of our members butted heads with her and then it escalated into problems,” he says.

“I’ve talked to her many times and there’s some good days and there’s some bad days. I can’t control that, but I still remain respectful,” says Kruger, adding that he’s also brought her salmon. “We’ve given her fish in the past.” 

He hopes that soon Okanagan Nation members will be able to fish peacefully without interference. In a statement, Okanagan Nation Alliance said they are planning to reach out and work with the OFID to build a walkway that will allow people safe passage to the fishing grounds. IndigiNews reached out to the OFID for comment, but they did not return our call. 

“I just can’t believe that we’re still talking about this,” Kruger says. “It feels like there’s racism happening here. And we don’t, we don’t need this.”

“I mean, we’ve already had decades and decades of challenges with the salmon. We lost our salmon because the dams were built. It was the fishing grounds for many years, thousands of years ago.” 

Walker responded to Kruger’s words in an email when asked for comment by IndigiNews, writing, “Defending our private property from trespassers does not make me racist.”

In another email, she writes, “Before the Dam was built, ‘Traditional fishing,’ or ‘any’ fishing for that matter, was done SOUTH OF THE ISLAND.”

The island, which can be seen in the map above, is further south of the dam and behind the Walker property. She says that these are not prime conditions for fishing now or in the past.

“Where the dam is now was shallow, reasonably fast-flowing ‘ripple water,’ which any number of historical photos verify. The rocks that created most of ‘the Falls’ were blasted out/removed by the government, when the dam was built,” she writes. 

This July 17, 2020 image shows cactus stuck to the fence preventing fishers from jumping over. Photo submitted by Harmony Kruger-Pickett.

Kruger says he will continue to fish there and meet his personal quota of well over 350 salmon a year, which he shares with his Nation. 

“I do it for myself and my family, and I give it to some single mothers, friends that need help, Elders, and I also feed a lot of salmon to the raptor rehab center,” he says.

However, Walker says that this land – since her family has owned it – has always been private property up to the natural water line.

“The land then became PRIVATE PROPERTY. When my grandparents bought it from the Owner, it was (and is) PRIVATE PROPERTY. A big part of why my grandparents purchased the PRIVATE PROPERTY was because the Owner(s) own to the NATURAL WATER BOUNDARY,” Walker added in her email.

A spokesperson from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) said in an email statement that they have received a request for a survey of the land by the Walker family. 

“The Ministry of FLNRORD has been referred an application to the Surveyor General, commissioned by the landowner,” reads the statement. “The Ministry is currently reviewing the referral and has commenced consultation with First Nations. 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.”

Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution recognizes Indigenous inherent rights, however it does not define them. It reaffirms the Indigenous Peoples’ rights as they existed prior to the creation of Section 35 in the early 1980s.

While the province goes into consultation with the First Nations, the Syilx People, in regards to the Walkers’ request to re-survey the public access land, the DFO said in an email statement that they support the ONA’s rights to continue fishing in their traditional territories. 

“On July 3, 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued a Food, Social, Ceremonial licence authorizing sockeye salmon fishing activity by First Nations on the Okanagan River, Osoyoos Lake and Skaha Lake,” reads the email statement. “Fisheries and Oceans Canada promotes Indigenous communities access to fisheries resources and encourages land owners and fishers to work together to address concerns over access in a respectful manner.”

It continues, “The conditions of licence reflect harvest methods, designation and monitoring requirements and the authorized fishing areas, which include Okanagan Falls, a traditional Indigenous fishing area established long prior to the dam being constructed.”

However, Walker shares in her statement, “Trespassers terrorizing us can go fish elsewhere that is not from Private Property.”

Walker also shared with IndigiNews the letter she sent to the ONA regarding her property. It stated the several reasons she is not in agreement with allowing fishers at the dam. Her listed concerns include litter, vehicle traffic and plant damage, along with safety and questions of liabilities. 

“I just want to be left alone,” says Kruger. “I do believe in safety. I do believe in her safety as well. She is a neighbour. I do believe that there shouldn’t be no campfires. I believe that there shouldn’t be any drugs or alcohol down there. It’s a place to gather your salmon, get your quota, help your families, help other people. And then leave, you know, I don’t want to be fishing there all season.”

ONA fisheries manager Howie Wright shares that the Alliance will continue to support its Nation members in fishing in Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ. 

“It is one of the few opportunities that ONA communities have left for harvest. Historically, it was one of the largest inland fisheries of the Columbia (along with Kettle Falls and Celilo Falls),” writes Wright in an email statement. “We want to support our fishers to be able to still access them and fish and practice what they historically did.”

Okanagan Falls fence
A portion of the fence that was once blocking the public access lands in Okanagan Falls, B.C. Photo submitted by Harmony Kruger-Pickett.

Progress is happening. On Monday, the DFO removed the fence blocking the public access area. This now allows community members to safely get to their fishing spot. And that means Okanagan Nation now has free access to exercise their traditional, inherent rights to fish. 

While it still doesn’t settle the property dispute, and as the province consults with the Syilx Nation regarding the Walker property survey, the Okanagan People will continue to fish. 

Including Kruger, who will be fishing with his family in order to provide to the Nation and animals at Sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ.

“Good things happen when we come together,” he says. “Our Elders wanted this, our leaders made this happen, and we’re going to continue making it out.”

For a follow-up report on the dispute and this week’s rally, click here.