WLFN Responds to Williams Lake Tribune article

Chief Willie Sellars (pictured) is dismayed when he hears people refer to Farwell Canyon as part of the Tsilhqot’in Territory. He adds that “it continues to be repeated, and people are starting to believe it!” Photo by Kiera Elise Photography.

Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) is responding to recent discussions regarding the area commonly know by the settler name of “Farwell Canyon.” 

In April, 2023, the Williams Lake Tribune published an article entitled “Williams Lake mountain bikers raise awareness of Farwell Canyon closure prior to 4/20 event.” It is stated in the article that a closure was imposed by Tl’esqox First Nation. The Tribune indicated in the article that Williams Lake First Nation and Esk’etemc (Alkali Lake) also claim the area as their traditional territory.

WLFN wishes to clarify that the area which includes Farwell Canyon is not simply “claimed” by the Secwepemc. Rather, it is a proven and documented fact that this area is within Secwepemc Territory. Both modern day court determinations as well as historical ethnographic records bear this fact out.

The Ministry of the Attorney General BC, Legal Services Branch, in the Strength of Claim Report for the Chilcotin (2010) concluded that the Tsilhqot’in Territorial boundary did not come any further east than Hanceville. The conclusion is as follows:

Ethnohistory indicates that Chilcotin [sic] traditional territory encompassed an area roughly described as west of Hanceville, east of the Coast Range, north of the Cascades, and south of the Itcha-Ilgachuz Range. In precontact times, this included places in the vicinity of Anahim Lake, Tatlayoko Lake, and the Nazko Lakes, as well as locations within the Chilcotin River watershed, such as Tatla Lake, Puntzi Lake, Eagle Lake, Chilcotin Lake, Choelquoit Lake, Chilko Lake, Taseko Lake(s), Yohetta Lake, and Alexis Lake(s). In the period between contact (1793) and sovereignty (1846), the Chilcotin continued in their use of these areas […].

Lands on the Chilcotin River below Hanceville, and along the Fraser River, were used by the neighbouring Canyon Shuswap and Talkotin Carrier until the smallpox epidemics of 1862-1863 decimated their populations. At this time, some Chilcotin groups shifted to the southeast in order to inhabit the abandoned sites. For this reason, many of their reserves are situated in places that are not considered to have been traditionally Chilcotin territory.

The surviving members of the Canyon Secwepemc relocated to Secwepemc villages east of the Fraser River and they in no way ever abandoned their territory West of the Fraser River. Seminal ethnographer of the First Nations of BC’s central interior, James Teit, confirms this in 1862. In The Jesup North Pacific Expedition: The Shuswap, Teit writes:

This band (Peq) lived on Riskie Creek, a small stream a few miles north of the mouth of Chilcotin River and was practically exterminated by smallpox in I862, the few survivors settling among the Alkali Lake people. Some time after the Shuswap ceased to reside here, a band of Chilcotin commenced to resort there, and obtained from the Government the grant of a reserve, upon which they now reside.

Teit further confirms that the Secwepemc never considered their old village sites or territory to be “abandoned.” He states:

Since the extinction of the Canyon division, and other bands formerly inhabiting the west side of Fraser River, and since the introduction of white man’s laws which prevent any retaliation, the Chilcotin have gradually encroached on these grounds, and a band of them have settled permanently on Riskie Creek, where the Government has given them a reserve. Nevertheless, the Shuswap still claim and use their old hunting grounds in this region.

One source for gathering the information in Teit’s Ethnography in 1900 was an Elder named Setse’l, who was born in the village Peq on Riskie Creek, and was still living at Alkali Lake in 1900. He was a small boy when Simon Fraser’s party came down the Fraser River with canoes in 1808.

Modern-day sources that clearly dispute the Tsilhqot’in claim to Secwepemc territory west of the Fraser River is the is R. v. Billy and Johnny 2006 fishing case. The courts findings did not support the Tsilhqot’in claim that Farewell Canyon and extended area west of the Fraser was within Chilcotin Territory. The court found:

[Para. 25] “While the above passages clearly indicate that the Chilcotin had some sort of ability to move in groups out to the Fraser River, they do not establish that they occupied the Chilcotin River downstream of present-day Hanceville nor that they had fishing rights on the lower reaches of the Chilcotin or the Fraser Rivers.”

“Aside from the above, all of the historical and ethnographic materials before the Court establish that at “contact” and in the years immediately preceding same, it was the Canyon Shuswap who occupied the territory surrounding the Chilcotin River for a considerable distance upstream of its confluence with the Fraser River and including Farwell Canyon.”

The court further concluded that:

[ Para. 40] “The great bulk of evidence in this case establishes that while there were not infrequent dealings, as well as intermarriage, between themselves and the Chilcotin, the Canyon Shuswap retained their identity and control over the fisheries resource in the territory they occupied at the time of contact and for a significant period beforehand. The evidence does not establish that through extensive intermarriage the Chilcotin, prior to contact, subsumed the Canyon Shuswap and as a result became successors to their aboriginal right to fish.”

It is not only universally held that Secwepemc territory extended well west of the Fraser River, but the authorities who put forward this view – among them George Dawson, Dr. Franz Boas, James Teit, and Father Adrien Morrice – were all cited with approval by various experts for both the plaintiffs and the defendants in the landmark Tsilhqot’in Title Case Indeed, the western boundary between Secwepemc and Tsilhqot’in peoples was also judicially recognized in 2006 by Gordon J. in R. v. Billy and Johnny.

In addition, various experts in the Tsilhqot’in Title Case, many of them experts on Tsilhqot’in lifeways, also cited the leading Secwepemc authorities, including Teit, with explicit approval. These include Anthropology Professor Dinwoodie, Historical Geography Professor Brealey, and Archaeology Professor Matson, all of whom were experts hired by the plaintiff Tsilhqot’in. In addition, Dakelth specialist Professor Hudson, another expert hired by the plaintiff Tsilhqot’in, referred to Teit as the “starting point for anthropological descriptions of First Nations cultures of the interior of British Columbia”, adding that “Teit’s early writings on Secwepemc or Shuswap culture indicate the areas identified with the Secwepemc and the Tsilhqot’in.

Thus, although we know that “…several causes led to a gradual eastward movement of the [Tsilhqot’in] tribe…” around 1865, we also know that their movement was into territory that, by all accounts, was held, and has been held exclusively by the Secwepemc peoples. As Teit wrote in 1909, “…these places were within the present recognized [Secwepemc] hunting-grounds, and have not been occupied by any alien people, the extinction or withdrawal of the people from these places does not mark any contraction of the tribal territory.