The chief of the Okanagan Indian Band says he’s taking a wait and see approach to the new Liberal government after this week’s federal election saw the Stephen Harper-led Conservative party ousted from power.
OKIB chief Byron Louis says there was very little progress for First Nations people in the last 10 years under Harper’s regime and perhaps the only steps forward came in the number of indigenous people that actually got out to vote in this week’s federal election, including Louis himself, who cast a ballot in his home riding for the first time ever.
“I’m 53 years old and this was my first time voting in my home riding and seeing some of our members in their 70s voting was quite surprising,” said Louis. “I was quite surprised who I saw in the polling station (on the OKIB reserve). If you can credit Harper with anything it is getting us out to vote.”
OKIB lands are split between the two ridings of Kelowna-Lake Country, now represented by Liberal Stephen Fuhr, as well as North Okanagan-Shuswap with Conservative Mel Arnold.
Louis says they will request a meeting with Fuhr to discuss issues around the OKIB and First Nations people and he hopes the issues his band and others have been fighting for will be more respected under the Liberal government. Louis said his members, like many First Nations across the country, were motivated to vote for a change in government.
“I think in talking to people it was definitely a time for change,” said Louis. “There hasn’t been much progress in the last 10 years and we’re hoping there is going to be change with this government and they live up to the commitments they have made. Promises are one thing, actions are another. I think it’s incumbent for the Liberals to live up to the promises they have made. They have a majority and they can actually make those changes so we are going to have to see if they live up to them.”
Louis said the biggest issue for First Nations across the country is missing and murdered aboriginal women, something the Liberals have promised to look into with an official inquiry.
But the OKIB chief says it’s not the only issue facing First Nations.
“There are a lot of pressing issues,” he said. “Most notably the missing and murdered aboriginal women. But there is also the need to look at regulatory reform especially how socio-economic development should be a priority focus instead of just administering programs. Our grand chief Stewart Phillip has called it administering our poverty and that has to change.”
Top amongst local issues for the OKIB is the clean-up of OKIB reserve lands that in the past, dating back to before the World Wars, was used for training for the national Department of Defense and Louis said there are many unexploded ordinances and explosives on their territory that need to be dealt with.
“As far as we’re concerned we have a contract with the Department of National Defense that said they would clean up (the ordinances) once they were done with those sites,” said Louis. “This is a $200 million dollar clean up and they have been putting $1 million towards it each year. At this rate it would take 200 years to clean up and that’s unacceptable.”
Louis said there are two different areas of OKIB reserves that were used for training: A 6,000 acre site in the Goose Lake range west of Vernon and 2,000 acres near Round Lake.