“We Want Our Land”: A 1976 Stó:lō Land Claims Negotiations Comic

by Madeline Knickerbocker

The 1970s were a period of intense political activism for many Indigenous communities, including the Stó:lō, whose territories encompass much of what is now known as the Fraser Valley in British Columbia.(1) For Stó:lō activists, one particular event was especially important: their 1976 occupation of buildings at Coqualeetza, a contested site being used by the Canadian Armed Forces. In the process of conducting my dissertation research, I found a one-page comic which is particularly significant for what it reveals about the complex political realities of land claims negotiations, and the attitudes of many Stó:lō towards the apparently inefficient process.

Coqualeetza holds a prominent place in Stó:lō history, although colonial officials have not always recognized this. The word “Coqualeetza” is an Anglicization of the Halq’eméylem word “Qw’oqw’elith’a,” meaning “the beating of the blankets,” or “place of cleansing,” in reference to a Stó:lō sxwóxwiyám, or myth-age history, about the site. In 1864, William McColl, a surveyor for British Columbia’s governor, James Douglas, designated it as an unofficial Indian reserve. However, in 1868, surveyors working for Joseph Trutch reduced the size of reserves in the Chilliwack area from more than 40,000 acres to 3,907 acres, and in the next year, the Crown granted the Coqualeetza lands to a white farmer. Subsequently, and despite Stó:lō peoples’ assertions of their right and title to their territories throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Coqualeetza site was used as a residential school and a tuberculosis hospital. By the mid-1970s, the site was under the authority of the federal Department of Public Works (DPW), and used as a barracks for the Canadian Armed Forces. Stó:lō, who had maintained their historical knowledge of and spiritual connection to Coqualeetza, continued to fight for the lands, and had been negotiating with the federal government for the return of the site since the late 1960s. Frustrations grew each year as the federal negotiators appeared to be strategically delaying meaningful discussion over the transfer of the land back to Stó:lō people.

By 1976, the Coqualeetza Education Training Centre (CETC) was leasing some buildings on the site from the DPW, but they were running short on space and wanted to expand into other buildings on site. The centre ran a series of cultural curation programs, which included Halq’eméylem language, arts and crafts, Stó:lō history, and technical skills workshops. During the previous year, the centre’s programming had expanded significantly, so more room was needed to house a reference library, a language laboratory, and a carving shed. The board of the CETC sent telegrams to Judd Buchanan, the federal minister of Indian Affairs, asking him to step up land negotiations, but these went unanswered. Eventually members of the CETC board and the East Fraser District Council (EFDC), an organization which represented twenty-four Stó:lō bands, decided to organize a sit-in at Coqualeetza. CETC interim director Mary Lou Andrew and EFDC Chief Archie Charles led a group of over 100 Stó:lō to protest at the site on March 18, 1976. The announcement of the sit-in had the hoped-for effect of acquiring the government’s attention.(2) Buchanan dispatched Cy Fairholm, a federal land claims negotiator, to Coqualeetza to speak publicly to the community.

This cartoon is a depiction of that encounter, drawn by an artist whose identity I could not determine, and published in the March 1976 issue of the Kw’eqwalith’a magazine. As it shows, many Stó:lō were unimpressed by Fairholm. In the top left, Judd Buchanan speaks to Fairholm on the telephone, saying “Fairholm, I want you to go to Coqualeetza. Never mind what for.” On the top right, Fairholm is at the meeting, and when a Stó:lō person says “We want our land,” Fairholm responds with “Well, I don’t have the authority to say yes or no, blah blah blah.” In the final image, as a Stó:lō person wonders “What is he doing here?” Fairholm asks himself the same thing, “what am I doing here,” even as he admits “I don’t know much about your land claim, blah blah blah.” A Stó:lō audience member wonders aloud about the helpfulness of the meeting.

Unknown artist, “Coqualeetza Land Claims” comic, March 1976, Kw’eqwalith’a magazine, Stó:lō Archives.

The cartoon is a nuanced representation of Indigenous perspectives on land claims negotiations in the late twentieth century. On the one hand, it emphasizes the high levels of tension between Stó:lō community members and apparently ineffectual federal bureaucrats. Certainly, the comic critiques Fairholm. Yet Buchanan’s illogical orders in the first frame also demonstrate that the root cause of Stó:lō frustrations is not necessarily the individual officials involved, but rather the whole structure of the Department of Indian Affairs itself. Simultaneously, however, these tensions are somewhat leavened by the artist’s decision to heighten the comedic aspects of the encounter. The official’s admission of his lack of knowledge, the incredulity of the Stó:lō audience (probably a common feeling among those who read this comic in 1976), the repetition of the phrase “blah, blah, blah,” and the final declaration of the senselessness of the day’s presentations demonstrate an effort to poke fun at a difficult situation. In this way, the cartoon reveals the effectiveness of the use of black humour as a form of strident criticism of colonialism.
As the comic indicates, the negotiations that day were unsuccessful, and the sit-in did not capture the attention of federal officials for long. Later that spring, Stó:lō protesters again staged a demonstration at Coqualeetza, this time occupying one of the residences. The confrontation ended abruptly when RCMP officers broke a door and entered the building. RCMP arrested 26 Stó:lō protesters, but subsequently all charges were dropped. Moreover, some months after the occupation, the federal government vacated the site, tacitly returning Coqualeetza to the Stó:lō. Although this was not necessarily a definitive triumph for Stó:lō protestors, the demonstrations were successful in regaining the lost land, something that, as the comic depicts, polite negotiation could not accomplish. Further, while today the Coqualeetza site is the headquarters of Stó:lō Nation, the federal government still has not formally returned the land to Stó:lō. Thus, the comic also has a high degree of contemporary relevance. As several bands in Stó:lō Nation continue to participate in the BC Treaty Process, analyzing how and why ruptures emerged in previous land claims negotiations could likely improve the seemingly glacial pace of the ongoing treaty negotiations.

1. In Halq’eméylem, the language historically spoken in the area around the Upper Fraser River, the word “stó:lō” means “river.” When Stó:lō people use it as a demonym, it means “people of the river.” The word itself has been spelled alternately “Staulo,” “Stahlo,” and, more recently, “Stó:lõ,” but following the work of Stó:lō elders and linguist Brent Galloway to document and revitalize the language, today Stó:lō political organizations tend to favour the macron, as opposed to the tilde, over the second O. For more information about Halq’eméylem orthography, see this key to the Stó:lō writing system. http://www.srrmcentre.com/StoneTxwelatse/06AKeyStoloWriting.html

2. Newspaper accounts in The Chilliwack Progress and The Vancouver Sun, as well as CETC documents, indicate that Buchanan did not respond to the telegram, but after a demonstration in Vancouver at the regional Indian Affairs office, there was some communication between the DIA and the CETC and EFDC. However, Stó:lō members of those organizations still did not feel their concerns were being seriously addressed, and so they viewed the 18 March demonstration as a necessary escalation of their ongoing efforts to secure the Coqualeetza site.

Harris, Cole. Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.

Woods, Jody R. “Coqualeetza: Legacies of Land Use.” In A Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas, edited by Keith Thor Carlson, 74-75. Vancouver and Chilliwack: Douglas & McIntyre and Stó:lō Heritage Trust, 2001.

About the author
Madeline Knickerbocker is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Her forthcoming dissertation examines the intersections between Stó:lō cultural curation and political activism in the twentieth century.