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Wild, wild horses

If you’re looking for a picture-perfect postcard of Pemberton, you could do far worse than the image of wild horses grazing in a field on a sunny summer’s day. For many, the sight of these magnificent creatures roaming free is a sign of the ways Pemberton, in spite of its rapid growth, has maintained its deep connections to the bucolic ways of life that have been so engrained here over generations as an agricultural hub.

As the years passed, Pemberton’s wild horses have become a potent symbol of that age-old clash between progress and nature. There have been countless Facebook posts of frustrated motorists crawling down Highway 99 on foggy evenings to make way for them, hoping for the best and calling for a collective solution. Cultural differences, multiple jurisdictional boundaries, drivers disobeying speed limits, an unwanted highway, and debates over where these majestic animals belong have divided the community.

Over the past month, the image most people are likely to see when they think of the wild horses of Pemberton is far from a pleasant one. This fall, two separate collisions on Highway 99 led to the death of two horses and an injured driver. Salt on the roads is now attracting these horses straight onto the highway, a problem that is unlikely to go away during the cold winter months.

Technically speaking, the horses are not completely wild. Owned and cared for by Wayne Andrews, a former cowboy and rodeo rider for the ages from the Lil’wat Nation, he recently met with Pique Newsmagazine on his blue tractor while preparing hay for the winter to discuss a debate that has captured the community.

A dire warning

A decades-old article in British Columbia Magazine nicknamed Wayne “The Champ” and followed his dream to become the “best bronc rider in North America,” documenting the athlete’s rigorous morning routine and daily plunges in the Birkenhead River.

“When I first started rodeo riding, I wanted to see the world,” says Wayne. “I asked my aunty what kind of training I could do to make my mind strong. She could hardly talk English but told me to train like the warriors.

“You ask the river to make you a good, strong person.”

However, Wayne stopped competing in rodeos at the height of his career because of a dire warning.

“A medicine man told me in a sweat lodge that he had a vision that I was going to get killed during a rodeo,” he recalls. “He said it was because we are not supposed to do that to the horses. The creator pitied all of us humans, so he gave us the horses to help us. The medicine man said the horses could take us out just like that.”

Wayne believes the warnings came in the worst possible form—the deaths of his beloved younger brother and son.

“My brother Nick-o wasn’t protected,” he says. “I didn’t know he was getting on bareback horses at the high school. He wanted to be like me. He was stepped on by a bull. It punctured his heart and lung.”

The family man warned his son growing up to stay away from rodeo riding, fearing he could meet the same fate.

“He wanted to be like me,” Wayne says. “I told him I would enter every rodeo he was in to make sure he didn’t come first. He died three years later. Girls were fighting over him because he was so handsome. He was passed out in the back of a car with a few girls. They went over the edge of the road and they all drowned in a river.”

‘It’s like keeping horses on a reserve’

The relationship Wayne has with his horses is deeply rooted in Lil’wat culture. He points to an image of a horse etched into T’szil, also known as Mount Currie, watching over him.

“We have to treat horses with respect,” he says. “Right now, I’m behind, but nature waits for me. Every time nature waits for me it’s because I look after and respect the horses.”

As the horses circle around Wayne in their pen, he points out their unique characteristics and the stories behind each of their names. Roxy, which belonged to Wayne’s daughter, was one of the horses struck dead in the October collision.

“It’s always hard,” he says. “So many horses have been killed. We are being terrorized by the highway. In 1990, people blocked the road because they didn’t want it paved. It got paved anyway. This is the last of our freedom area. Once this is gone, I will leave. I will take these horses and leave.”

Wayne says he was ill for weeks after trying to get his horses off the highway in heavy rain. Recent events have left him with a broken heart. Fencing is in place for the horses, but they often escape. His worst fear is the horses live trapped, a feeling Wayne and the Lil’wat know full well.

“That’s like colonizing us,” he says. “That’s really mean and cruel. It’s like keeping horses on a reserve. We have a hard time speaking out because we are so used to being punished. It’s all from the boarding schools.”

Wayne’s life has been tainted by the long-term trauma of Canada’s residential school system. “My mom and dad attended residential schools,” he says. “I was hit by my dad very hard. One day, I said, ‘Heh.’ He said, ‘You know what happened to me when I said ‘Heh’—and he back-fisted me. I bounced off the floor and there was blood everywhere. I would have died if my siblings didn’t help me.”

Wayne concedes his family is starving, trying to make ends meet. “We have had horses stolen,” he claims. “There is no better life than this for the horses. We are being bullied by a highway. We have a fence to keep them in, but it’s trash. People drive through with their vehicles and wreck it all the time. They want to keep shrinking us. Now, they want to take the horses. There is no better home for the horses than here.”

The 65-year-old feels he has been picked on for his treatment of the horses as he was during his time as a rodeo rider, where fellow competitors would single him out as the “Indian.”

“The highway company should fence off the highway,” he says. “They are the ones that put it there.”

Murray Sinclair, spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, tells Pique fencing off the highway is not possible.

“On new high-speed and limited access freeways and expressways, the ministry often constructs wildlife exclusion fencing where large species of wildlife may be present,” he writes in an email. “However, in the case of domestic livestock—animals owned by farmers or ranchers—it is the responsibility of the livestock owners to secure their properties. There are signs on Highway 99 between Pemberton and Mt. Currie warning motorists that horses may be present on the highway.”

A more robust fencing system is not in Wayne’s budget, practically speaking. Besides, he argues the onus should lie with the people who built the road in the first place. Meanwhile, community members have stepped up to the task. Shaneika Lepine, Ayla Pascal and Lenikah Lepine helped Wayne round up the horses when they were spotted on the highway on Sunday, Dec 3. With the help of local tribal police, the Lil’wat women rode the horses from Pemberton to the rodeo grounds in Mount Currie, where Wayne usually keeps them.

Wayne’s sister, Rosa Andrews, principal of Xetólacw Community School in Mount Currie, believes the horses speak to deeper issues directly connected to Canada’s colonization of the Lil’wat.

“We have a boundary line,” she says. “Our traditional territory is unceded, unsurrendered territory. Our ancestors signed a declaration in 1911 stating that it is our traditional territory. We have never ceded or surrendered. We are the rightful owners to our traditional territory.”

Rosa believes the horses are cognizant of this traditional territory.

“There were brass pegs placed between two of the slides on Mount Currie Mountain as a boundary marker. It crosses the valley over to the other side where the red bridge was. There was another brass peg placed there. Our animals stayed on our side, but Pemberton has pushed their boundary way over to the industrial park. They have done that without the consent of the people.”

(In response, a Village of Pemberton spokesperson said in a statement that all land-use at the municipality—which lies entirely within unceded Lil’wat territory—are referred to the Lil’wat Nation, and ultimately require “active participation and approval” from the provincial government, which is responsible for consulting with First Nations as part of its process. “No municipal boundary extensions have been made by the Village of Pemberton in the past 10 years, apart from exploring options in 2018,” the statement continued.)

In 1990, Lil’wat Nation members installed a roadblock and rebelled against clear-cut logging and the expropriation of Mount Currie reserve land for Highway 99. Wayne and Rosa’s mother was one of those protestors.

“Pemberton has pushed their boundary and has also pushed a road through,” Rosa says. “Highway 99 was put there without the consent of the people. That was the reason why we had a roadblock in 1975 and 1990. Our people have gone to jail over this road. We have never given our consent and we are resisting colonization. Even the horses know their traditional territory, they know their traditional grazing area. Their goal is money. They fenced us in. They put us on reservations. Now, we have this wild herd of horses who are on their way. They want to fence them, too.”

Paved in 1990, Duffey Lake Road, the stretch of Highway 99 spanning from Pemberton to Lillooet, has completely changed the landscape of their home, Rosa says.

“This has been a problem since the road was put through,” she says. “Back when I was a kid, I could ride a horse around here. We would ride our horses to school. We didn’t have to worry about traffic. It’s scary to even cross that road now.”

The horse is incredibly important to Lil’wat culture.

“The horse spirit is really strong,” says Rosa. “It’s something that not too many people will understand. We even have a song, ‘The Wild Horse Dance.’ It’s a wild spirit. You don’t learn to contain the spirit. You learn how to respect one another. If you learn to respect one another, then you can work together as a team.”

The horses also help keep the land around them safe.

“The horses even help us with their natural grazing,” says Rosa. “They keep down all the brush for the wildfires. It’s supposed to be a reservation, a place reserved for our people, and yet the highway is going through it. They are killing our animals. Wayne feels really bad because he strongly believes in the horse spirit. He has always been really good with horses.”

The rumour mill

Rumours in the community have swirled that Wayne intentionally breeds the horses for meat, something he was eager to dispel. Acknowledging that he sometimes has to sell the horses at auction to “correct the bloodline,” Wayne claims that, once, his horses were accidentally sold to a kill buyer.

“This has happened,” he says. “We sent the horses for auction in Kamloops. My son and I were watching it. The same name kept coming up: Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed. I asked my son to look in the computer and try and find out why that guy is always buying the horses. The guy was a horse-meat buyer who goes after organic meat. He would out-bid anyone.”

Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of horsemeat. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 2,600 Canadian horses were exported for slaughter in 2022, all of which ended up in Japan, at a total value of $19 million, according to an October CBC investigation.

Others have criticized Wayne for the horses’ apparent condition. Kris Latham, owner and founder of Second Chance Cheekye Ranch in the Squamish Valley, has worked with Wayne previously, and said the animals were well taken care of.

“We have taken in just under 30 horses over the years,” she says. “We did purchase some of them just to give the owner a bit of a reprieve. We have gotten nearly every single one of them into new homes. To purchase them is to get them out of harm’s way and into good homes.

“They have been on the range. They’re eating grass. They’re horses, so they are living the life by just being able to roam and eat whatever they like,” Latham adds. “With the population boom, traffic and tourists and people who don’t recognize speed limits, animals are obviously being hurt. I don’t think it’s true that they have been raised for slaughter. A number have been shipped for slaughter.”

Local Kimberly Ibbotson raised her concerns on social media about the presence of horses on the highway, having had several near-misses over the years.

“Apparently, people like to go around there and drive crazily around the site,” she says. “They leave the pasture’s gates open. When we first moved here, we romanticized it, but they are not wild horses. They need medical attention and care. We are worried about horses being on the highway. They can get hurt or hurt somebody else.”

She worries that tourists won’t know to expect horses coming around the bend, something that could lead to a serious accident.

“The people in this community are all aware that they are there and take our time going through, but we have so many people from out of town passing through,” Ibbotson says. “They are not looking out for these horses as we are.”

Pemberton’s Jim O’Toole says he found the remains of a horse on his property 10 days after the Oct. 12 collision that killed two animals.

“Two horses were found on the highway and then a foal was found dead against my neighbour’s property. Horses crowded around the dead foal. It was like they were having a funeral for the foal. Over the next week or so, I just noticed this rancid smell. I was out with my dogs, and I noticed this wig on the grass. It was nighttime so I just had my flashlight. Then I saw the maggots going through it. It was a horse’s tail,” he says. “I found the head and the vertebrae about a hundred feet away in another grove of bushes. I called the RCMP and explained that the timeline lined up with the earlier accident.”

O’Toole later called Miller Capilano Highway Services, the company contracted for maintenance on that stretch of Highway 99. He was allegedly the second caller to report a collision with a horse that day.

“Miller Capilano said they would be there in the morning, but nobody came,” he explains. “I dug a hole with my tractor and buried the horse in the front of my property. I don’t think it’s publicly known they get hit as much as they do.”

Miller Capilano deferred all comment to the provincial highway ministry.

O’Toole asserts drivers need to go slower on the stretch of road outside his property.

“I don’t know how you could do it, but a flashing warning might work. The speed limit also needs to be reduced. Nobody really does 80 kilometres an hour anyway. Literally at our property line, it turns from 50km/h to 80km/h.”

A partnership approach

Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman concedes it’s “a tough” issue to deal with.

“The horses travel from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The Village does not have the capacity to go rounding up horses. We just don’t have the labour,” he says. “It’s really something that needs to be worked on collaterally. We share a great concern over this.”

Richman underlines that the risk to drivers becomes far greater in the winter. “We recognize the danger to everybody,” he says “We recognise the danger to the horses, especially at this foggy time of year. We have had conversations with different groups. All of us are handcuffed in terms of resources.”

The Village of Pemberton has agreed to send a formal letter to Lil’wat’s Chief and council asking to work together to mitigate the risk.

“We are looking to see if there are bylaws that we can create together and if there are things we can do together to help,” explains Richman, adding he will follow the Nation’s lead.

“There are a lot of sensitivities there,” he says. “Highway 99 wasn’t there before. This is unceded land. We know that history. We want to take a partnership approach.”

Lil’wat Chief Dean Nelson declined comment.

Police investigations into this fall’s accidents are still ongoing, and Cpl. James Gilmour with the RCMP declined to comment further on the matter.

As questions abound over who exactly should be responsible for these roaming animals, it is the wild horses of Pemberton that will face the consequences of inaction. These stunning creatures stand at a crossroads—but there’s traffic incoming.

Roisin Cullen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Pique Newsmagazine