Tourism operators in the Chilcotin say the Tsilhqot’in rights and title win has had a disheartening and economically devastating effect on their businesses.
In letters written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Christy Clark early this month, the Chilko Operators Association (COA) representing five tourism operators is pleading for a resolution with the federal, provincial and Tsilhqot’in National governments.
“We are not trying to incite racism,” association member Brian McCutcheon of ROAM Adventures Inc.
Bear Camp told the Tribune Tuesday. “It it not a native versus non-native issue. It’s about the fact there are no provisions on how to address private commercial operators who are trapped inside title lands.”
By writing the letters and contacting the media, McCutcheon said the association is trying to draw the Tsilhqot’in, federal and provincial governments out of hibernation.
“The only communication we had has been controversial and contradictory to our meetings,” he said, noting during meetings in October 2015, and May and October 2016, tourism operators were told it would be status quo. Then in December 2016, some of the operators received letters from the Tsilhqot’in National Government telling them to stop advertising and stop operations in the title area.
“It is very confusing because the province tells us they don’t know what is going on and the federal government does not answer us,” McCutcheon said.
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William told the Tribune Tuesday that during the transition period local operators were informed that they can continue with any licensed or permitted activities.
“Some operators have been operating without a permit or a license, even before the title win,” William said, noting letters were sent to all tourism operators this winter with the intent to try and resolve the issues and invite all operators to “come to the table and get approval.”
McCutcheon, however, said he does have a permit to raft and kayak on Chilko River and Chilko Lake with his guests, but has been told by William he doesn’t have a license to view bears.
“My understanding is our guests are allowed to go on Tsilhqot’in lands just as the public are, but Chief Roger seems to want to continually differentiate our guests from the regular public,” McCutcheon said.
“What’s the difference between a person staying at a motel in Williams Lake and coming out and hiking around or someone staying at our camp and hiking around? He can’t clarify that.”
McCutcheon also said Xeni Gwet’in wardens have evicted photographers from private property, erected road signs telling people to stop their vehicles in the title area and that the Chilko River was closed.
“I am not saying whether it is right or wrong, but I am asking these questions. Do they have the right to close access roads to private property, to Chilko Lake and Chilko River?”
William said he knows many operators are frustrated.
“There is a group called the Chilko and Community Resorts Association that we have been working with since we signed an agreement in early 2000,” William said. “That group has been meeting with us to do tourism planning.”
William said in the past few years, Xeni Gwet’in did not have the resources to work with the operators, and the Tsilhqot’in title transition team has only been in place for about a year and a half, and a manager was hired just before Christmas.
McCutcheon said five of the six major operators formed the COA in hopes they could get better answers to their questions.
“We are just asking for clarity from the governments to get to the table together. Unfortunately there can never be a balance or harmony in the Chilcotin as such because we have five commercial businesses that we represent surrounded by 440,000 hectares of private land,” he said.
Part of the cease and desist order states the Tsilhqot’in are entitled to financial benefit for access to title lands, but what that exactly means is unclear, said McCutcheon.
Williams Lake and District Chamber of Commerce president Charlene Harrison said the chamber would like to see the issue resolved.
“We as the chamber were under the understanding that businesses in the title area would be recognized and given consideration,” Harrison said.
“We are just as disappointed as the people that are being effected that this type of situation is being created when we are all trying to build better relationships.”