Sacrificing farmland for a treaty will be for the greater good
Monday, June 05, 2006
In the context of treaty negotiations, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson's plea to the Tsawwassen band to leave farmland untouched is a bit hard to swallow.
No doubt she represents what she perceives to be the interests of her community in trying to protect productive agricultural land. But we are pretty sure what the reaction of European settlers would have been to similar advice from aboriginals as the newcomers cleared the natives' traditional territory for farming in the first place.
The dispute over the final use of farmland that would be included in a land-claims settlement is the only really dark cloud hanging over a historic accomplishment for the 348 members of the Tsawwassen First Nation, who appear to be on the verge of achieving what would be British Columbia's first urban treaty.
The Tsawwassen want to take about half of the 427 hectares of land to be included in the settlement -- an area about the size of Stanley Park -- out of the Agricultural Land Reserve so they can use it for economic development.
We have argued in the past that agricultural land must be preserved unless there is an overriding public interest in allowing it to be taken out of the ALR. The only way to keep arable land affordable for farming is to keep it out of the hands of speculators hoping to pry it loose for other purposes.
Satisfying the historic claim of the Tsawwassen band and creating a sustainable economy for its members meets that public interest test, even though it may be outside the parameters normally used to judge such requests by the regional Agricultural Land Review Board. If so, the province should step in to override the local authority.
The living conditions on the existing Tsawwassen reserve are all too similar to the shameful socio-economic conditions found on reserves across the country. On the reserve, the band reports average family income is a third of the surrounding area, the unemployment rate is six times as high and the high school graduation rate is 30 points lower.
The details of the proposed treaty are still closely guarded, but the Vancouver Sun's Miro Cernetig has learned enough to show that the current concerns of Delta residents about the loss of farmland should be more than offset in the long run by the inclusion of the Tsawwassen band as a healthy member of the larger community.
In exchange for the benefits -- worth an estimated $56 million -- the Tsawwassen band members will give up their outstanding land claims in the larger region and the tax-exempt status of the existing reserve. Over time, they will start paying income taxes just like every other Canadian.
Under the solid leadership of Kim Baird, the band has already shown its primary interest is to create a viable economy and a reasonable standard of living for its members. They settled a lawsuit two years ago with the Vancouver Port Authority over environmental degradation from the Roberts Bank Superport in a way that allows the band to become a partner in the expansion of the facility rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
They hope to continue down that path by reaching this agreement. As Mayor Jackson fears, life in the region will change. We think for the better.