VICTORIA A new kind of pressure on the agricultural land reserve has emerged with the application by the Tsawwassen First Nation to remove some of its treaty settlement lands for industrial purposes.
The legislation that allows aboriginal communities to apply directly to the Agricultural Land Commission has been around for a couple of years, but the Tsawwassen application looks to be the first real test of it. I asked Agriculture Minister Pat Bell last week if there will be others.
“There are other possible ones that could occur,” Bell said. “As an example in my part of the province [Prince George] with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, some of their land selections are also in the land reserve, and they have an interest in removing some of that. I think we’ll find it around the province.”
The Tsawwassen have asked the commission to indicate how much of their treaty settlement lands can be released, and they’d like an answer before they finalize B.C.’s first modern urban treaty.The provincial legislation allows them to apply once they reach the approval-in-principle stage of treaty talks, because the answer affects other compensation they may seek.
The municipality of Delta is understandably concerned about this. First the Tsawwassen negotiators added purchased land to the treaty settlement area, and now Delta finds it has been bypassed on the agricultural application. Delta says provincial regulations require that “adjacent local governments” be consulted when considering ALR exclusions, and that those regulations have been breached.
Typically it’s aboriginal communities that demand consultation, but there are new precedents being established in the Tsawwassen case. How much consultation was there when the province constructed a ferry terminal, then a coal port through the Tsawwassen traditional territory? Given that it’s a community of 328 people, perhaps not much. These days under Chief Kim Baird, the Tsawwassen are cooperating on the major port expansion planned for Delta, and looking to a future that includes a lot more than farming and fishing. It wasn’t the Tsawwassen people who decided to make their community a hub of trade and commerce, but that’s the reality and they want to make the best of it.
Aside from the need for stable employment, Baird revealed in May that after 13 years of treaty talks, the tiny community is $4.5 million in debt. That’s about a third of the expected cash settlement in the treaty, just to pay lawyers and staff for their work on the complex negotiations.
Bell expects that the Tsawwassen application to the land commission will take a while, and he’s not convinced yet that applying before a treaty is finalized is the way to go. As for Delta’s objections, he says they are entitled to their views and they’re looking after their community’s interests.
“We have a larger perspective that we have to look at this from,” Bell said. “We have to factor in our obligations to first nations.”
Numerous court decisions have driven home this point, and Premier Gordon Campbell has staked a large part of his reputation on making treaties work. He knows as well as the Tsawwassen and other aboriginal leaders, if there isn’t proper consultation and accommodation of aboriginal rights and title, the legal bills will begin again, and the aboriginal people will probably win.
New national statistics on the state of aboriginal social development just came out, and as usual they are not good.
Disastrous is more like it, in terms of unemployment, illness and crime. Industrial development, be it forests or mining or working on major Asian seaport development, is the way ahead.
Barnston up next
The Agricultural Land Commission’s South Coast panel is in for a busy time. With only one permanent director in place, criticized for his ties to the B.C. Liberal party, commission chairman Erik Karlsen has been brought in temporarily, along with directors from the Okanagan and Island panels.
They will be considering the long-awaited Barnston Island decision, and Bell says to expect a decision by the end of June.
For what it’s worth, I’ll predict that the application to remove a large portion of this lower Fraser River island from the ALR will be refused. The die was cast on Barnston Island a few years ago when the Katzie First Nation objected to the new Golden Ears Bridge stepping from Langley to its Barnston reserve to Maple Ridge. That would have given the island the road access that would have made it a desirable industrial location, like Annacis Island just downriver.
Richmond land too
The “Garden City lands” in Richmond are variable in their agricultural capability. They’re also former federal property that’s never been farmed, and they’re close to major urban development.
Richmond resident Bill Jones lost his seat on the south coast panel before he even knew he had it, by stating at a public meeting that the Garden City lands should come out of the ALR. As a former resident of that area, I’d say he’s right and I’ll predict that it will come out.
Both the Barnston and Garden City applications relate to the “community need” for other uses that panels now must consider. Trouble is, as Bell concedes, “community need” remains largely undefined.
Bell has asked land commission staff to come up with recommendations on what community need should mean, and that too is expected by the end of June.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. bureau reporter for Black Press newspapers.