The Indigenous People of the Nicola Valley


The Nicola Valley centers around the confluence of the Nicola and Coldwater Rivers and the City of Merritt. The valley and river were named for Nicola (Hwistesmexteqen), a powerful Chief and son of a Syilx (Okanagan) Chief named Pelkamulox.

 

The overall population of the valley is approximately 14,000, with about one-third of its residents self-identifying as Indigenous.

 

8 Indian Bands are connected to the Nicola Valley either geographically or politically. All of them are part of the Interior Salish language group. The Nlakapamux (Thompson) Bands of Lower Nicola, Coldwater, Nooaitch, Shackan, Cook’s Ferry and the primarily Syilx community of Upper Nicola have reserves located right in the valley. Three more distant Nlakapamux communities—Nicomen and Siska-- are members of the Nicola Tribal Association but their main settlements are outside of the catchment area of the Merritt Provincial Court.

 

None of the above-mentioned Bands are part of the BC Treaty Process.


 

The Nicola Valley is within the traditional territories asserted by both the Nlakapamux and Syilx Nations. There is considerable intermarriage among the two tribal groups. The Nicola Valley was also once the home of an Athapascan group known as the Stuwix. It is quite likely that some of the valley’s Indigenous people have Stuwix ancestry.

 

Traditionally, Nlakapamux and Syilx economies were based on hunting, fishing and gathering. Harvesting was primarily for subsistence, but trade was relatively common. Communities were small, seasonally mobile and relatively autonomous. Pit houses (“s7istkn” in Nlakapamtsin and “kekulis” in Nsyilxcen) served as winter homes. Although there were hereditary Chiefs, leadership was primarily based on expertise and merit. Modesty and respectfulness were, and remain, valued personal characteristics.


European ranchers began settling the Nicola Valley in the 1850’s. Later in the century, coal was discovered and mining joined ranching as the primary non-indigenous industries of the valley. The community of Forksdale was established, and its name was later changed to Merritt in 1906.

 

As elsewhere in the province, the First Nations people of the Nicola Valley were segregated onto Indian reserves. Children were forced to attend residential schools, typically the Anglican St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton or the Catholic Kamloops Indian Residential School. Populations declined due to smallpox and other diseases. Part of the legacy of this colonization is a disproportionately high involvement of Nicola Valley First Nations people as victims and offenders in the present-day criminal justice system.

 

In addition to its First Nations population, the Nicola Valley has perhaps 300 people who self-identify as Metis. The Thompson Okanagan Metis hold events in the valley and the Kamloops-based Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family & Community Services Society operates a family support office in Merritt.

 

There is also a significant population of non-Nicola or non-status Indians residing in the valley. Many Indigenous people in the Nicola Valley of all backgrounds use the services of the Conayt Friendship Society.

 

Merritt has a provincial circuit court (without resident court staff) and a probation office open 5 days a week. It has a local Law Foundation-funded Advocacy Centre that processes legal aid applications and whose supervising lawyer usually acts as duty counsel in Merritt criminal court. It also has a federally-funded Aboriginal justice Program that coordinates restorative justice initiatives and supervises the probation of Indigenous adults.

 

The Nicola Valley is home to the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, an Indigenously governed post-secondary institute “grounded in Aboriginal culture, tradition, and Indigenous Knowledge”. NVIT offers a number of programs related to governance and justice including Aboriginal Leadership in the Justice System, Criminology, Law Enforcement Preparation, Aboriginal Governance & Leadership and First Nations Public Administration.

 

The Nicola Valley has several healthy, knowledgeable and traditionally grounded Nlakapamux, Syilx and Metis elders who are willing and able to participate in an Indigenous Justice Court.