Sinixt elder Marilyn James had many supporters in the courtroom during her trial this week in Nelson. Photo: Will Johnson

Court imposes peace bond in Sinixt property dispute

Sinixt elder Marilyn James was charged with mischief and being unlawfully in a dwelling place

Marilyn James is not allowed to go anywhere near Melissa Dorey or Angela Tuovinen for six months, according to the terms of a peace bond imposed in B.C. Provincial Court in Nelson by Judge Ronald Webb on Wednesday.

Judge Webb imposed the peace bond instead of sentencing the Slocan Valley resident and Sinixt elder for a charge of mischief, for which he found her guilty and then gave her an absolute discharge.

A peace bond is an order that a person not contact other specified person(s) and not commit an offence during a designated period.

James had also been charged with being unlawfully in a dwelling house, for which she was acquitted.

James represented herself in the two-day trial that stemmed from an incident on Nov. 30, 2016, in which she changed the locks on a residence at 4120 Slocan River Road near Winlaw in which Tuovinen and Dorey were living. The pair called the RCMP, and the crown laid charges.

The house in question is owned by the Arrow Lakes Aboriginal Society, a subsidiary of the Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT) in Washington State, of which the Sinixt are a member.

In the trial James did not dispute the allegation that she changed the locks on the house, or that she barred doors and windows from the inside and left a note on the door asking the residents to respect Sinixt property and giving her phone number and address where she could be contacted. Another note stated that the occupants should contact James to arrange to collect their belongings from the house by a specified date or they would be taken to the dump.

The basis of James’ defence was that she is a Sinixt elder, the two women are non-Sinixt, and the original purpose of the house was as an open-access centre for Sinixt cultural and social practices.

Tuovinen and Dorey testified that they were occupying the house as house-sitters with the permission of the permanent resident of the house, Bob Campbell, a Sinixt man.

James testified that for the first time since the Sinixt purchased the house in 2002, Tuovinen and Dorey had put locks on the house. James said that previously the house was always open and unlocked.

James said the locks amounted to non-Sinixt people usurping Sinixt property.

“Locks on the door started with white people living there,” James said. “That’s the story of this land. Someone is always there to take it away from us.”

James complained in court that Tuovinen and Dorey did not contact her and talk to her as her note requested, but called the police instead.

Tuovinen and Dorey both testified that they were afraid.

“I felt bullied. When someone locks you out of your house you don’t feel safe,” Tuovinen testified.

Dorey also testified that she felt threatened by James. They gave other testimony indicating that animosity between the two women and James was longstanding.

The judge asked James why she did not contact the two women instead of changing the locks.

“If the purpose of your being there was to free up a building,” he said,” why did you feel the need to lock it yourself?”

James responded that she had gone into the house in preparation for starting a Sinixt language school there, which would have suited the original purpose of the property as a public cultural space. She referred to the two women as “freeloaders.”

The charge of unlawfully entering a dwelling place includes the added proviso that the purpose of the entry is to commit an offense.

Judge Webb determined that James did not commit an offense once she was in the house, nor did she intend to commit one. So he found her not guilty, and admitted he was being lenient.

“This is a charitable decision,” he said. “Why did she need to change the locks on that particular day? In my view the probable reason was political.” He was referring to a variety of disputes within the Sinixt community that arose often in the trial.

He said he found the charge of mischief more difficult to decide on. A key component of mischief, he said, is that it “obstructs, interrupts or interferes with any person in the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.”

Judge Webb said he accepted that Tuovinen had a right to live in the house and that James’s actions interfered with her use of the property and with her access to her possessions.

So he made a finding of guilt but gave James an absolute discharge, and imposed the peace bond which will require her to stay away from Tuovinen and Dorey for six months.

There were many political and cultural issues brought forward in the trial that Judge Webb said were irrelevant to whether or not James was guilty of the charges.

“Most of the other evidence,” he stated, “dealt with infighting among the Sinixt.”

As an indication of that internal split, a sign posted by James’s supporters on the fence outside the courtroom read, “Decolonize the CCT leadership.”

“I am not here to resolve the problems of an internal struggle,” Judge Webb said.

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