HELSTON: Why the Okanagan Indian Band refuses to sit back and wait

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.

The rough, dirt road leading to the Madeline Lake range takes you off Highway 97 and through a wooded area before tossing you out into the brightness of an enormous, open meadow. Here, two flat, grassy plateaus rest at the base of a towering mountainside. If you look closely, you might spot a bear or other wild animal traversing the steep hillside. The noise of the highway is reduced to a distant hum, barely audible in this tranquil oasis.

This is the land you’ve been reading about in recent news articles. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it, but these many hundreds of acres of seemingly pristine wilderness are littered with old military explosives. Back in the 1950s, the Department of National Defence leased the range for weapons training. Simulated battles involving tanks and machine guns played out on the open fields, lodging what the military refers to as Unexploded Explosive Ordnances or UXOs into the soil.

Fast forward 60 years, and the band is still trying to get the military to clean up the mess of explosives it left behind — as it promised to do. A lease agreement signed in 1952 puts it pretty clearly. It states the department "agrees to remove or dispose of all duds from the permit area at the termination of any firing practice." The agreement, which renewed the lease for one year, also states the department "undertakes to repair all damage done to the land and to fill all holes for the protection of stock and riders."

That end of the bargain was simply not upheld. Yes, the Defence Department finally began clearing the land over the past few years and has committed funding and manpower to the project, but years of hassle is not what the band agreed to. It wants the land returned to a useable state, and rightly so. 

The band is looking to the future. It envisions housing and commercial developments on the range, homes for its people and a means to stimulate the economy. But it can’t do any of that until the land is deemed safe.

How long will the band have to wait? It’s been over 60 years already. Meanwhile, it took a private developer just 11 years to land an $11-million settlement from DND for environmental damages. The band’s director of economic development called it "the story of the rich get richer and the First Nations are left in the avenues laid out by the government."

With those results, suing unfortunately starts to look more appealing than working with the system. When asked if the band would consider pursuing legal avenues instead of those laid out by the government, chief Byron Louis said, "all options are open."

Exactly what the band plans to do next remains unknown, but it's clear they're aiming to do more than sit back and wait. 

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infonews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

letters-to-the-editor
Vernon RCMP Supt. responds to 'RISK IT OUT'
Editor,   I am concerned by significant inaccuracies that could compromise both officer and public safety, in the November 30th Infonews article by Charlotte Helston on RCMP staffing in Vernon. To set the record straight, I do
Editor's Note in response to allegations from Vernon RCMP Supt. Jim McNamara
Editor’s note: • Watch shifts at the Vernon detachment have fallen as low as three roadable officers. • The department suffers from chronic understaffing. • Sources, who we trust and who have knowledge of the situ

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