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B.C. First Nation sues port firm, others for disrupting ancestral remains

Bonaparte First Nation says Ashcroft railway project on site of burial ground
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An aerial view of a railway terminal port in Ashcroft, B.C. is shown in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Ashcroft Terminal Ltd.

A First Nation is suing the British Columbia and federal governments and the company behind a railway terminal port in the province’s Interior, claiming it wasn’t properly consulted about the project it says has “desecrated” its ancestral territory.

Bonaparte First Nation Chief Frank Antoine said inland port development by Ashcroft Terminal Ltd. over the First Nations’ ancestral remains continues unabated with the support of the federal and provincial government.

The nation filed a lawsuit Wednesday, saying it has been wrongfully misled and shut out of the development process.

In June 2021, Antoine said members of the Bonaparte staged a sit-in protest on the site of Ashcroft Terminal’s inland port, where expansion activities unearthed ancestral remains and other culturally significant artifacts.

“They just put it in a box, put it in a trailer and left it there until our membership decided to say enough is enough,” Antoine said. “From that day forward, since June, we’ve been trying to sit down and have these open discussions and honest discussions with them and it just seems that they don’t want to sit down with us. They just keep moving forward.”

The Bonaparte First Nation lawsuit names Ashcroft Terminal Ltd. and several others, claiming railway infrastructure development for the inland port has destroyed and disturbed ancestral burial grounds.

In a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court, the First Nation alleges Ashcroft Terminal misled the band about the scope of construction activities for the 300-acre railway terminal port.

The lawsuit alleges the terminal is on the site of Bonaparte’s historical village, which it says carries deep spiritual and cultural significance to the band and its members.

The First Nation claims the site contains “numerous” burial grounds and carbon dating places the Bonaparte on the territory dating back nearly 8,000 years.

The lawsuit says Ashcroft Terminal’s construction and excavation activities have disturbed the remains and other archeologically significant artifacts on the site.

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been tested or proven in court and the defendants have yet to file responses to the claim. Ashcroft Terminal Ltd. and the federal government did not immediately provide comment on the lawsuit.

B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation said it could not comment on a matter before the courts.

Antoine said the companies involved in the expansion are “bypassing” what they want them to stop doing and will “keep pushing forward until this terminal is completely built.”

Months after Bonaparte members protested at the site, Ashcroft Terminal signed an investment deal with Canadian Tire Corp., giving the company — which is not a party to the lawsuit — a 25 per cent stake in the project.

Antoine said things “went quiet” afterwards, leaving the First Nation, again, shut out of discussions about development activity on their unceded traditional territory.

“We have a list of stuff that we want to work with them on, and if this is what they call UNDRIP or Truth and Reconciliation, they’re definitely doing it on the wrong side of the tracks,” Antoine said, referring to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “They’re not working with us; they’d rather work away from us.”

The lawsuit alleges the provincial and federal governments failed to adequately consult the band about the project, which has received millions in subsidies since development plans were unveiled back in 2006.

The Bonaparte First Nation claims in court that they were misled about the size of the inland port development plans, alleging Ashcroft deceptively presented the 300-acre terminal as “small-scale, piecemeal, bite-sized mini projects and proposals.”

“Each of which posed a small fractional threat to (Bonaparte First Nation’s) interests compared with the true scope of (Ashcroft Terminal Ltd.’s) development,” the lawsuit states.

Antoine said the Bonaparte’s attempts to have a dialogue with governments and Ashcroft Terminal have been unsuccessful, leaving him and the First Nation’s approximately 1,000 members with little other choice than to take the matter to court.

“They need to understand that they can’t just bypass us anymore. We’re not a group of Indigenous people that doesn’t understand the government, how government works,” he said. “We are part of government now and we want to be self-sufficient, we want to be independent and we want to be partners and build a relationship. They just don’t seem to want to build that relationship.”

—Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Bonaparte ancestral remains discovered at Ashcroft Terminal returned to burial site

READ MORE: Ashcroft Terminal signs investment agreement with Canadian Tire

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