A dispute involving a logging contractor and local members and supporters of the Sinixt First Nation came to a head in 2014, when a judge granted an injunction to prevent them from blocking a road in the Slocan Valley.
Galena Contractors of Nakusp applied for the order after being prevented access to Perry Ridge, where they had a contract with BC Timber Sales to build an eight-kilometer logging road extension.
But Marilyn James and others maintained what they called a “cultural encampment” at the site, saying the work threatened sensitive archaeological areas within her traditional territory.
“I have to uphold my responsibilities to my society,” she said. “We’re doing our cultural practices and they’re trying to turn us into criminals.”
The Sinixt are not officially recognized by the BC government as a First Nation.
Galena previously applied for an injunction when the blockade began in June 2013, but Justice Mark McEwan declined to grant it, suggesting RCMP should take action under the criminal code. Police recommended charges against three people, but the Crown declined to approve them.
When RCMP assured McEwan they would enforce the injunction, he approved it.
On March 4, James was arrested at the site along with Dennis Zarelli, described in court as “an adopted member of the Sinixt,” for refusing to let crews pass. Charged with criminal contempt, they made a chaotic appearance that evening before McEwan, who asked if they would sign an undertaking not to return to the site. When they refused to answer, he remanded them both.
Later that night, however, they signed the agreement and were released. Zarelli learned his wife had died suddenly that day.
In May, Zarelli pled guilty and received 14 days house arrest and 18 months probation. Crown counsel said Zarelli’s “public defiance” was an aggravating factor, but it was tempered by his admission of guilt and personal circumstances.
James, however, pled not guilty and represented herself at trial. She denied impeding Galena Contracting, contending the company already had crews ploughing the road past the gate where she stood and that owner Ray Hascarl had a key to the gate, although he told her otherwise. Under cross-examination, Hascarl admitted he lied to her because “I was scared for my safety.”
James also said police didn’t ask her or Zarelli any questions to verify they were violating the injunction before arresting them. She frequently sparred with and shouted at McEwan during the trial.
The Crown said James defied the injunction and invited others to join her on Perry Ridge, “to assert her obviously deeply held and sincere position. In doing so, however, she defied this court’s injunction.”
McEwan found James guilty and gave her the same sentence as Zarelli. He said there was “no question” she defied the injunction. When asked if she had anything to say, James replied: “I think what this court does is highly unjust to Indian people. I don’t believe I broke any law.”
In September, James was outraged when the Okanagan Nation Alliance and Colville Confederated Tribes held a reburial ceremony for some ancient aboriginal bones discovered at the edge of Slocan Pool. She issued a blistering statement accused the groups of “collusion” and trying to prevent her from attending the ceremony. She resigned as spokeswoman for local Sinixt, a position she has held since 1990, and also cut ties with a longtime associate.
Virgil Seymour, the Arrow Lakes facilitator with the Colville Confederated tribes, said the statement took him “totally by surprise,” while the chair of the Okanagan Nation Alliance said James was welcome at the ceremony. “Whatever the personal circumstances of this resignation, it is deeply saddening that some individuals would attempt to use the collaborative repatriation and reburial of our ancestors to attempt to launch a political campaign,” Stewart Philip said.
Robert Watt, caretaker of the Vallican burial site, whom James also had harsh words for, said he considered her statement libelous, and his main concern was that their ancestor “be put to rest in a respectful and traditional manner by her people.”