By Kelly Sinoski
In the old days, the Tsq’escen’emc First Nation (Canim Lake) roamed across the Cariboo.
Hunter-gatherers, the people would fish the area’s lakes and streams. Using special dogs, hunters would chase caribou off the hill above Canim Lake. They would travel to Green Lake or the snow mountains, gathering plants and medicines.
“We had that traditional nomadic lifestyle, we didn’t stay in one particular spot because it didn’t make sense,” says Stanley Daniels, a Tsq’escen’emc councillor.
Times have changed over the past century for the Tsq’escen’emc, known as the People of Broken Rock in Secwépemc. With a population of 610, the band is situated about 30 kilometres east of 100 Mile House. Around 40 per cent live in the community, the rest away from home.
“Being reminded we still live on reserve, that hits me,” Kupki7 (Chief) Helen Henderson says.
But she knows they are making progress, on their way back to their traditional way of life, which includes holding up Secwépemc laws, values and practice. The band has been in treaty negotiations for the past 30 years, intent on achieving self-governance and self-determination.
“We’re waking up to who we are as Secwépemc and how that looks to our relationship to the territory,” Henderson says.
Their top priority is to practice all Secwépemc laws and values in every decision, she says. One tool they are using to achieve this is Bill C-92. The federal bill, passed in 2019, recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for Indigenous children and communities. Bill C-92 empowers bands to develop their own childcare policies and systems that are in the best interest of children and ensure cultural continuity.
Henderson sees this as a “stepping stone” to achieving full jurisdiction under treaty for their lands.
“We understand we’re not going back to pre-contact days but we need to be able to stand up and hold true to our supreme law, Secwépemc law, and how does that look in today’s time?” she says. “We’re pretty excited about self-determination and self-governance and empowering our people.”
The Tsq’escen’emc have a rich culture and history.
Irene Gilbert, who does mapping and communications for the band, has gathered 265 interviews, along with 30,000 pictures, and 300 maps. Her work shows where their people hunted, fished and trapped, where they had cabins, campgrounds, and trails.
“We were called the Lakes Division,” Gilberts says, adding they were known for specialized night fishing. “We had access to the rivers but it was a long way for our people.”
Elders have told her how they would set traps, fashioned from willows, in the creek near Howard Lake in the spring, and fished Canim Lake in the summer. In the fall, they would mark the shallow part of Canim, the “sunken island”- a place still known by a few people today. They would go out in a dugout canoe and, using pitch, would attract the females, who would dutifully bring them the male fish. The winter saw “shiners,” or minnows, dropped into a hole in the ice to catch lake trout.
The lakes were also used for hunting. “One of the Elders talks about Hendrix Lake. He remembers one of the older people telling him they used to corral caribou in Hendrix Lake and spear them,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert has worked for decades documenting the history and the language of her people. She is one of only a few of their people who can read and write Secwepemcstin, or the Shuswap language, fluently. But more are slowly joining them. Young people are attending language classes twice a week. Other youth are helping to transcribe interviews or label tapes with the stories of their people.
“Our language is who we are,” she says.
Gilbert is heartened that more peeople are interested in learning the old ways, the sacred rituals of the Secwépemc. “The kids are fearless and they’re going and learning these things. My generation, because we were influenced by the church, we lost those core values but the younger ones are looking for that,” she says. “We need to let them find those old ways and go back to them.
“We’ve lost our way a little bit and I think now some of the younger ones are starting to say ‘no I want to go back and learn.’ It’s exciting for me because for a long time nobody wanted to come.”
Gilbert says about 90 per cent of the youth who come to work with her go on to university or college, achieving successful careers.
“I think they’re finding a sense of self. They’re learning about their grandparents and their great grandparents and how they survived and how we got here,” she says. “Knowing where they come from builds their confidence.”
Gilbert says her people still hunt and fish. A few tan hides. She and others continue to pick plants for medicine and berries like Hooshum (soapberries), saskatoons and huckleberries. Everything used to be closer, she says, but now they have to go into the snow mountains to gather, and hunt.
“The Elders talked about how they could go out their back door and shoot a deer. Today, the game is getting scarce.”
Henderson says in order to access more programs and services from Indigenous Services Canada, they need to raise the Tsq’escen’emc profile with updated population numbers, demographics and capacities of all Tsq’escen’emc.
“We are prioritizing capacity growth with our Tsq’escen’emc,” she says.
In Indigenous culture, every member has a role, such as fishing chief, hunting chief, doctor.
“We identify the strength of our babies, our children and our youth,” Henderson says. “Pre-contact, we would all contribute to their growth to make sure they can step into their leadership roles. We set them up for success. That was our value and our system.”
Daniels says council is also working on land-based healing, working with Elders and people who went to residential school. Tapping in those stories and knowledge are important to move forward, especially in terms of stewardship practices on the land.
“It’s only since contact that we’ve been told what to do and how to be. In that short period of time, we’ve experienced major losses and changes to the economy and global warming and all of that,” he says. “Only since the time of colonization did all of these things happen like mass extinction and global crisis.
“There are definitely solutions moving forward, especially putting Indigenous people in charge of Indigenous practices. Everything that’s cutting edge now, like proactive burning, are Indigenous practices that have always been in place.”
Collaboration is key, he says. Henderson says the band continues to strengthen the relationships with its neighbours, working with School District 27 on education for its students. It also has strong connections with the District of 100 Mile House and the Cariboo Regional District, joining forces in times of floods and wildfires.
When COVID-19 struck the membership last year, Henderson says they reached out to all stakeholders affected by our outbreak. “Our value is not just looking after ourselves but our neighbours as well. Our message is ‘we care about you,’” she says.
Henderson says while it’s exciting to move toward self-governance, it will take time, and heavy lifting.
“The concept we strive toward is ‘ensuring we are looking after mother earth and our members for the next seven generations.’ Decolonizing our mindsets will take time and will indeed take generations,” Henderson says.
But a future of self-governance is worth it, she says.
“That’s what keeps me going. There will be a time for Tsq’escenemc, when this will be in the past, in the history books that this is how we used to do things (being wards of the government).”
Daniels says they have to do something because what’s happening now is not working for their people.
”Indigenous rites and titles benefit everybody because we have the same outcomes that benefit everybody: clean air, clean water, all these different kinds of things.”