Wounds linger from a 19th century massacre that displaced the tribes of Gilford Island.
More than 150 years later, the wrongs of the past have resurfaced resulting in a stand-off over title, land, resources and cash.
On Saturday morning, things came to a head on the Campbell River Indian Band Reserve when more than 100 First Nations people from Northern Vancouver Island staged a peaceful protest in front of the Thunderbird Hall.
“It pains me to be here…the family who we’re speaking to are closely related and I love them,” said Chief Wedlidi Speck. “This is really challenging…but I need to stand here and I need to stand for truth.”
Chiefs and representatives from bands stretching from Campbell River to the northern tip of the Island, stood together to protest the division of two tribes, initiated by the Sewid family.
It all goes back to a horrific incident, in or about 1856, when Bella Coola warriors paddled south to Kingcome Inlet and massacred residents living on Gilford Island.
As a result, the survivors were displaced to other communities, with the majority, about 50 people, choosing to live with relatives and friends at Mamalilikulla on nearby Village Island.
After that, the historic record becomes complicated, but both sides in the present-day dispute say they have history on their side.
“This division is being sought in order to rectify a historic wrong perpetrated by the federal government when they illegally amalgamated the Mamalilikulla and the Wiumasgum Qwe’Qwa’Sot’Em people,” wrote Chief Harold Sewid on June 24, 2013, in an open letter to band members.
In short, Chief Sewid has initiated a process with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to separate the two bands. It’s a goal, he said, that was started 50 years ago by his grandfather and then his father.
If approved, the new Wiumasgum-Qwe’Qwa’Sot’Em nation would be seeking reserve lands and $1 million from a claim settlement that’s been sitting in trust.
Chief Sewid is hoping to hold a referendum to decide the issue, but the next step is undecided after more than 100 people showed up to protest the split.
“You can get into a war of words very easily,” Chief Sewid told the Mirror on Tuesday. “These are all my family and relatives. It would just upset a lot of things.”
His next step is to consult with legal counsel. However, the proposed split has angered others who assert that Chief Sewid and his family do not have, according to researcher Mike Willie, “legitimate right to the name, history and land…”
“The Sewid family is claiming the history, lands and authority of a nation that already exists – this is identity theft,” Willie wrote in a backgrounder handed out at Saturday’s protest.
Willie said the bands opposed to the split have been shut out of the federal process and have been apparently told, by Chief Sewid, that it’s none of their business.
The protestors, however, take the opposite view and point out the merger will unfairly take away land – including a sacred cave – and resources.
“The reason we’re so angry is they claim we’re squatters on Gilford Island and that’s not true,” Willie said in a phone interview Monday night. “We need a process to refute their research and they need to stop it!”