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Mistrial about to be declared in eagle poaching case

Gary Abbott has been waiting for eight long years to be vindicated after facing charges for unlawful possession of eagle feathers.

He was one of several charged in a high-profile poaching case launched in 2006 by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service.

Abbott's lawyer, George Wool, informed him last week that a mistrial was about to be declared by the judge due to issues of disclosure.

"I am elated," Abbott told The Progress, before heading off for a short respite in Mexico. "It's been a long, hard run. This was a fight that needed to be fought."

He was originally charged, along with 10 others, with more than 21 counts under the BC Wildlife Act for illegally possessing and trafficking in dead wildlife.

"We are the first to fight and win against these laws," Abbott said, adding that he considers himself a "general" for his people. "Being aboriginal, the use of eagle feathers is part of our rights and title."

A traditional powwow dancer, Abbott said at the time that he had "lost" his spirit after being hit with the charges.

"Who knew we would be criminals for possessing eagle feathers," he wrote in a blog post.

Tyrone McNeil, vice-president of Sto:lo Tribal Council, was thrilled to hear about the prospect of a mistrial in this case.

"We're really glad it turned out this way.

"There were so many hiccups and it stayed in process for so long. It should have been tossed out long before this," said McNeil.

"It seemed right from the get-go there was a vendetta declared against First Nations. I'm really glad someone decided this was sheer folly, to get it thrown out of the system and to let these guys get on with their lives."

Some of the accused like Abbott, are really well-respected in Sto:lo traditional cultural circles, he said.

"It's shameful that they would be persecuted to this extent. It's a clear case of rights and title that should have been recognized," said McNeil. "It was as if the judicial system was out to attack these men."

Even from the legal point of view, there were allegations of entrapment, a sting operation used by officers, which should have been factored in sooner. It was alleged in 2010 that undercover officers were dispatched to reserves to entice impoverished people to kill eagles for money.

"We shouldn't have to hold a permit. We have been harvesting eagle feathers for cultural purposes for eons," stated McNeil, adding that only certain individuals are mandated in cultural circles to harvest wildlife.

One of the most telling sub-stories was when the lead Conservation Officer on the case, Richard Grindrod, was alleged to have enacted financial improprieties with government credit cards, and was under investigation, when he testified in this case.

"But still the judge allowed his evidence to stand in this case, which we don't understand."

The matter was galling given the "new" relationship that First Nations have supposedly forged with the province, and improvements with the federal government.

"This showed us, that on the ground, things hadn't changed much," said McNeil.

Under the existing BC Wildlife Act, penalties for poaching can be up to $50,000 and $100,000 for trafficking.

First Nations leaders held a protest in downtown Vancouver in 2010 wearing eagle regalia, and railing against criminalizing cultural use of eagle feathers.

There are still other similar cases before the courts, so this is a crucial win, Abbott said.

"Hopefully this will set in motion a precedent," he said.

And he wants the eagle feather bustles that were confiscated as evidence to be returned to him — post haste.

"I want my feathers back. I want them back regardless."

The bustles appear in a 2006 men's fancy dance special on Youtube of the Chilliwack Pow Wow where Abbott dances to a song that has been written just for him.

"I only wore them once."

The next court appearance would have touched on the issue of rights and title, but it never got that far.

"It would have been sweeter to win on question of rights and title, but what happened is still a victory."

The judge's reasons for the mistrial decision are expected later this month.

jfeinberg@theprogress.com

Twitter.com/chwkjourno

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