‘Turning our culture into contraband:’ Calls for national inquiry into B.C. eagle poaching case

There are calls for a national public inquiry into a high-profile eagle poaching trial in B.C. that saw more than 100 charges against 13 First Nations men dropped after a lengthy court case.

Ralph Leon, Chief of Sts’ailes tribe in the eastern Fraser Valley, who survived abuse at a residential school, was arrested and strip searched when he and twelve others were charged with various Wildlife Act offenses in 2006 after nearly 50 mutilated eagle carcasses were found in North Vancouver.

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Indigenous men arrested for B.C. eagle poaching case call for public inquiry

“We had nothing to do with the findings of the birds, they’re sacred to us,” Leon said in an interview with Global News.

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Read more: Chilliwack men have eagle poaching charges dropped after nine years

In 2015, nearly a decade later, Crown counsel determined it no longer had grounds to proceed and the charges were dropped.

The men have long maintained they weren’t guilty of anything except practicing their culture and say they’ve tried for years to have their story heard.

“The BCPS applies a two-part test to determine whether charges will be approved […] whether there is a substantial likelihood of conviction; and, if so, whether the public interest requires a prosecution,” BC Prosecution Service Communications Counsel Dan McLaughlin said in a statement.

“Based on its review of these matters in 2015 the Crown Counsel determined that the charge assessment standard for a prosecution was no longer met and directed a stay of proceedings.”

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However, that did not come before the case claimed many of the accused men’s reputations, relationships and jobs.

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“I’m a teacher by trade and I wasn’t allowed to be that teacher which I love so much, I wasn’t allowed to work with culture and that’s my life,” Leon said.

Lawyer George Wool, who represented many of the accused men, argued the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) used inappropriate undercover tactics by attending Indigenous cultural events like powwow’s to gain trust, bringing alcohol onto the otherwise dry reserve and luring the accused men into illegal activity.

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He says some of the men were more vulnerable than others and while there were some who pleaded guilty and served time in prison, there are now calls for all convictions to be reversed because of the alleged entrapment.

“Through a court order, I obtained emails showing conservation officers were importing eagle parts from Saskatchewan and giving them to Indigenous people, then charging them with possessing the eagle parts without a permit. It was calculated and unfair,” Wool said.

The case is the subject of a petition tabled by Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon MP Brad Vis on Monday in the House of Commons.

“Those wrongfully charged have gathered sufficient evidence showcasing: Conspiracy to prosecute innocent people; Defamatory media releases vilifying Indigenous peoples and culture; Fabrication of evidence and concealment of evidence, including perjury, counselling and aiding Indigenous people to commit offences, trespassing onto Indigenous Reserve Lands,” Vis said during Monday’s session in Parliament.

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The B.C. Wildlife Act gives Indigenous people rights to harvest wildlife for food, social and ceremonial purposes in their traditional area, which is why Leon is among those calling their wrongful charges a systemic failure reminiscent of the potlatch banishment days.

“I grew up powwow dancing, drumming and wearing my feathers and when government says you can’t use that, it brought me right back to the dark history when it was against the law to use feathers and gather with friends,” Leon told Global News.

The head dress Leon uses today has feathers that are more than a century old, passed down from his grandfather. When he first received that sacred piece and earned the cultural rights to wear it, he was banned by a probation order forbidding him from using eagle feathers.

Relationships, reputations ruined

As was the case with Leon, his friend Gary Abbott, of the Nle?kepmx Nation, told Global News the accusations tore his family and his community apart.

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“I was working in the U.S. and got a call from my girlfriend at the time and said the police were there and searched the house for regalia and they took my regalia. I got a call from the conservation officer saying when I cross back into Canada, I need to turn myself in,” Abbott said.

Abbott said to this day he still faces questions from people asking if he is the “eagle killer” they saw on the news.

“Nine years we had to go and check in every week for bail. There are hardened criminals that didn’t have to do that every week for nine years like we did,” Abbott said.

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“I really wanted it to go to judgement and I was very upset when [the judge] stayed the charges … it needed to have a precedent set because what happens now is they could turn around and try to do this to other people, and that’s why I think it’s important the precedent should have been set in our case.”

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Eagle feathers hold sacred meaning to several Indigenous communities. They can symbolize a spiritual link to their creator and obtaining them can require hunting the birds, but strictly for ceremonial purposes.

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“We only take what we need and we use everything and I said that several times,” Abbot said.

“I said, if we had taken those eagles, we would have used all of it. We use every single part of the deer, the moose, the elk, the bear and the eagles and other birds.”

Wes Francis, also of Sts’ailes, who survived abuse as a child in day school, said while the charges were under the Wildlife Act, he was treated like a criminal and ended up losing his job as a seasonal worker for Chehalis Fisheries Department.

“The band wouldn’t hire me. They said they won’t hire me because of the charges, people looked at me differently. I don’t really talk to anyone anymore, I just keep to myself.” he said.

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“Compensation is not going to bring back time with my family.”

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Jerome Seymour is among the group of men who have demanded an apology for several years over allegations of fraud, fabricated evidence and injustice.

“When I got charged I was just starting to powwow dance, I was enjoying myself, finding this walk of life, I really enjoyed it and that was ruined for me, I couldn’t obtain regalia, they didn’t want me to have eagle feathers in my possession,” he explained.

“I lost jobs because they treated me like a murderer. I had to check in with a probation officer once a week.”

Seymour said the way he was treated in by the conservation officers, the judicial system and in prison leads to further mistrust in Canadian institutions and the justice system.

Federal, provincial government response

In his petition tabled Monday, Vis called upon the federal minister of justice David Lametti to conduct a public inquiry into the “injustices committed by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and the B.C. Prosecution Service,” against the group “because of their race and culture with the express purpose of reconciling these injustices through the reversal of all convictions, return of property seized and appropriate compensation.”

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Minister Lametti told Global News Thursday he’ll review the petition and consider the request for an inquiry.

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“I’m always open obviously to how we might improve the areas within my jurisdiction and how we might better ensure that areas working with the province and how areas within their jurisdiction are better applied,” Lametti said.

“I understand the importance of eagles and eagle feathers to their tradition and ceremony and both the substantive and symbolic importance of that and so we’ll work to try and find a solution.”

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B.C. Minister of Environment George Heyman said if Ottawa chooses to pursue an inquiry, his department would cooperate.

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“Much has changed in the last seven years, not to the least of which is our government adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples […] we’ll take action to work with nations to return material that’s not subject to confiscation by the courts,” Heyman told Global News.

Leon said he hopes those who were involved in his case and those in the departments they represented visit his community and learn.

“I don’t put blame on people who have a job to do but come learn who I am and what I stand for,” he said.

Beyond understanding, the accused men are seeking an apology with acknowledgement the systemic efforts to make Indigenous culture criminal are not just part of Canada’s history, but Canada’s present.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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