PENTICTON, Canada — A standoff over control of a two-lane road that threads through an Indian reservation in British Columbia is the latest flash point in the increasingly tense relationship between Canadian authorities and native peoples.
Small but high-profile protests by Indian militants, usually young and sometimes armed, have erupted across Canada in the past year. Although police generally have handled the demonstrations with restraint, one Indian was fatally shot by officers in Ontario last summer, and pressure is building among whites for a tougher response to future protests.
Paul R. Tennant, a University of British Columbia political science professor who has written extensively on Indian issues, says the furor undermines the authority of established Indian leaders who have chosen to negotiate native land claims and other grievances with the government and threatens the negotiating process.
The issue is most acute here in British Columbia, home to an estimated 150,000 Indians and the last place in North America where most tribes continue to negotiate treaties formally surrendering their ownership of the land.
In Penticton, the disputed road bisects the Okanagan Indian reservation and is the most direct route to the Apex Ski Resort, which has embarked on a five-year plan to more than triple its capacity to 4,000 overnight accommodations.
Masked natives dressed in surplus U.S. Army camouflage uniforms blocked the road for 35 days at the beginning of last year's ski season and are threatening to do so again, defying a court order won by the British Columbia government.
Rough bunkers have been built into the hill above the Indians' roadside "checkpoint," and tribe members occasionally photograph cars on the road or take down license numbers.
There are two other routes into the resort, one more circuitous and the other a logging road. But the Indian tactics have pushed Apex to near bankruptcy, company President Fraser Martin said. The company reported losses of $3.84 million last year, and its share price on the Vancouver Stock Exchange plunged from nearly $2 to 16 cents. Apex has filed a $92.5-million lawsuit against the British Columbia government, alleging that it has failed to enforce the law.
Although the Indians have not brandished weapons, the prospect of violence intimidates both customers and employees, Martin said. "The community really, really is frightened of violence. You know, they're out there in fatigues with masks up to their eyes."
But Stewart Phillip, 46, the protest leader, said the Indians use such tactics simply because they work.
"If you're passive and quiet, everybody ignores you" Phillip said as he stood next to a bonfire at the checkpoint.
As proof, he said the government did not consult the Indians before approving the resort expansion, even though it would affect their watershed and dramatically increase traffic.
After the tribe restricted access on the road, authorities agreed to study the plan's environmental impact. Further negotiations broke down over the Indians' refusal to recognize government ownership of the road, despite a government offer of $960,000 in compensation.
For the Indians, the issue is less the road than gaining power and a stake in the economic growth of British Columbia.
The economic growth of the past decade on Canada's West Coast has conspicuously bypassed most native peoples, and Indian leaders say unemployment on the Penticton reservation is 70%.
"We're not prepared to accept the status quo," Phillip said, "and we're not prepared to accept continuing decisions that compromise the well-being of our citizens."