Land claims versus agriculture reserve hamper native treaty


Vaughn Palmer

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, June 03, 2006

VICTORIA - As the Tsawwassen First Nation approaches the closing stage of negotiating the province's first urban treaty, band chief Kim Baird figures a storm is coming.

"I guess it will be controversial," she told my colleague Miro Cernetig of The Vancouver Sun recently.

Not so for every item in the proposed settlement with the tiny -- population 348 -- native community.

Anyone following B.C.'s slow pursuit of land claims settlements surely realizes that a modern-day treaty will deliver reasonable helpings of money, infrastructure, resources, and self government.

The potential shocker in this instance is the land -- more than 400 hectares of unspoiled waterfront and farmland -- and the band's plan to develop much of it.

"We'll probably be asking for about half of it to be taken out of the agricultural land reserve," says Chief Baird. "If we can't have that, I don't think we can have a treaty. That would be a deal-breaker."

No land for economic development, job creation, growth for her community? No deal.

"Okay, no deal," might well be the reaction from the adjacent municipality of Delta, which has a history of unsympathetic relations with its aboriginal neighbour.

Major development on prime agricultural land will not go down well in a community that already feels under siege from truck traffic, greenhouses, port expansion, the ferry terminal and hydro-electric power lines.

"If they want this land," says Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, "they should farm it, just like everyone else."

I don't doubt that she speaks for many Delta residents, the non-farmers included. She'll get support from Lower Mainland residents from right across the political spectrum.

But let me be sure I understand the position:

The non-native community built a coal port, a ferry terminal, a freeway, a railway, a hydroelectric transmission line and a sizable residential community on the traditional territory of the Tsawwassen First Nation.

And now we're going to give back some of their land, but say THEY can't build anything on it?

One of the main goals of any treaty is to provide first nations with a basis for economic self-sufficiency. Another goal is to allow the band to try to survive on its traditional territory, or what's left of it.

The unemployment in rate in Chief Baird's community is six times that of Mayor Jackson's community, as Cernetig notes in a story published elsewhere in today's Sun. The average family income is about a third. The services are grim.

The proposed settlement land, located close to the port, would provide the Tsawwassen band with a base from which to capitalize on economic activities that have already encroached on their territory.

The land is readily available for that purpose, having been stockpiled by the province, more than a generation ago, with a view to future port expansion.

Yes, the land will be lost to agriculture, green space and other priorities of the non-native community.

But tradeoffs are inevitable in the settlement process, as opposed to the never-ending, good-only-for-lawyers-and-consultants process of negotiation.

Chief Baird is making concessions as well -- on taxes, governance and trying to incorporate her nation into the regional district.

She risks offending hard-liners who urge native leaders to hold out for more, always more, in terms of land, money and autonomy.

Having said that, there's probably some room left to compromise. In asking for half the land to be removed from the land reserve, the band might settle for a third, providing governments offered something in return.

If this settlement is going to fly with the public, it will need enthusiastic support from senior governments.

Premier Gordon Campbell, wanting both port development and a better relationship with first nations, will surely be there.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper can clear the way for greater native participation in the economy as well.

The New Democrats may face a tough call over the tradeoff between agricultural land and an economic land base for the natives. But I can't see them campaigning against a treaty.

For all the controversy that may attach to the Tsawwassen proposal, it's a good thing to finally see what an urban settlement looks like.

British Columbians, living in the hinterlands, have long since had to face up to the emerging reality of shared jurisdiction with first nations over land and resources.

I've lost track how many times someone from the north or Interior has asked me when city dwellers are going to realize that treaties will affect their way of life, too.

So this is where the rubber meets the road.

Or, thinking of the proposed tradeoffs, where the blacktop meets the green space.

 The Vancouver Sun 2006