A sacred site among the Okanagan’s indigenous people would likely enjoy improved protection under a Memorandum of Understanding signed this morning that establishes a working boundary for a proposed 27,300-hectare South Okanagan Similkameen Park Reserve.
“That’s equivalent to 67 Stanley Parks.” said Catherine McKenna, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change. “It includes incredible and cultural landscapes, including the sacred site Spotted Lake.”
The MOU — signed by representatives of the federal and provincial governments and the elected chiefs of the Osoyoos and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands — also provides a framework to negotiate for a park agreement that would embrace a swath of land largely centred on Mount Kobau.
The earmarked territory includes Crown land, provincial protected areas, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Nature Trust holdings and some private property.
According to Parks Canada, the proposed park area — which includes both rolling green grasslands and semi-arid desert — is home to 11 percent of Canada’s species at risk, including American badgers, flammulated owls, desert night snakes and western rattlesnakes.
“For millennia, the Syilx Okanagan Nation have called this home — this extremely beautiful place — and we know that we need to protect it,” Ms. McKenna said. “Governments need to take action. We need to be working in true partnership with indigenous peoples.”
That partnership, said Lower Similkameen Chief Keith Crow, would provide protection for elements his people fear are being destroyed.
“We’re worried about our land,” he said. “As well, we’re worried about our water. We need to figure out how to protect it better.
“My community has made it very clear to me in the meetings that we have that we need more protected areas.”
Chief Crow said he sees value in partnering with the federal and provincial governments to protect indigenous assets like Spotted Lake, a traditional medicine lake for the Syilx people that is at risk with increased development around it.
The lake, located about 10 km west of Osoyoos, includes rich concentrations of various minerals that become more visible as water in the lake evaporates over the warm summer months. Flooding is having an adverse impact on that process.
“It still has too much water than it normally would have because of the activity that is going on around Spotted Lake,” explained Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie.
“Hopefully [with] willing buyer-willing seller [acquisition], more land gets bought and protects Spotted Lake.”
The signing ceremony, hosted by the Osoyoos Indian Band at Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, was interrupted briefly by several protesters opposed to the Parks Canada process.
Chief Louie quieted the disruption, calling the protesters disrespectful and embarrassing. Later he suggested all peoples inhabiting the South Okanagan should find value in protecting the region’s eco-system, suggesting it had economic importance as well.
“Regardless of whether you’re on the yes side or the no side, we have to look at the facts and tourism is important to our region,” he said.
George Heyman, the provincial environment and climate change minister, also spoke to park opponents, suggesting there was room to work towards an all-inclusive agreement but also warning there would be repercussions if measures weren’t taken to protect the region.
“What people have built together is to show that it is feasible to find a way to protect all the unique ecological values of this region and the history of the indigenous people as well as the more recent history of others who live here and to do it in the way that preserves something that it is irreplaceable,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody who lives in this area — whether it’s a rancher, whether it’s an indigenous person, whether it’s somebody who works in a another job and loves the recreational opportunities — wants to turn around in a decade or two and say, ‘Oh, if only we’d known; we would have done more.’ ”
The MOU comes about 18 months after the parties gathered on the same site to announce a renewed commitment to work together to establish a national park.
Since then, discussion among the South Okanagan-Similkameen community has been polarized, with “Yes” and “No” signs sprinkled about the region.
Those opposed to the park speak to lost or reduced use by ranchers, utility and logging companies and guide and eco-tour outfitters.
Getting to the next milestone — an establishment agreement — is expected to take up to two years.