More than 200 people showed up Sunday for a peaceful protest on Soowahlie land against a proposed residential development called Cultus Lake Crossing.
Aquifer protection and sovereignty were key issues, as the sound of hand drums and voices were raised.
“Our main focus today is the protection of our water and land,” said Soowahlie Chief Brenda Wallace. “We have a really sensitive aquifer, and even though our groundwater is sustainable at the moment, who is to say that 250 new homes won’t affect our water?”
For her the chief councillor it’s important to see the “highest and best use of the land” based on community-driven priorities, and not just financial ones.
The timing is tight.
A Soowahlie Land Code is about to go to a vote of the band members this week — and seeing it passed would give the Soowahlie more authority and control over development.
“If the vote is yes, we will be given more responsibility for our lands,” said Chief Wallace.
They formally asked the federal government to halt the lease process until their land code goes through.
At one time band consent was required in the process to negotiate a lease with a holder of a Certificate of Possession (CP). It’s a fairly recent loophole that allows the locatee lease agreement process to have gotten this far, over the firm objections of the chief, band and community members.
To understand the term Certificate of Possession in this context, refer to the Indian Act, where it states that individual members of a First Nation, or CP holders, may be given land allotments.
“An allotment is the right to use and occupy a parcel of reserve land. Allotments must be approved by the Band Council and the Minister. Once approved, the individual allotment holder has ‘lawful possession’ of a parcel of land and may be issued a Certificate of Possession as evidence of their right,” according to the INAC website.
Under the former Conservative government, the formal requirement to obtain the consent of the band with a band council resolution, (BCR) was replaced in the legislation in 2013 with the simpler provision that an agreement only need to comply with existing bylaws.
Wallace said the band was surprised to get a letter from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in September 2014 saying it had approved the 99-year lease on Soowahlie land, for the proposed development.
“The letter said they didn’t require a band vote or BCR from band council at that time.”
Then in February INAC went ahead and sent lease documents, asking for a BCR stating the band consents to the lease before they even had a community meeting about it.
A petition against Cultus Lake Crossing was passed around during the Sunday protest. Hot dogs and smoked ooligans were served along side fresh apples and oranges, chips, and fresh Soowahlie water.
The large group of more than 200 people, which included Soowahlie, and neighbours from Cultus Lake and Sleepy Hollow, walked together to the site in opposition.
They’re not against development in general, but chief, council and band members made it clear the process was unacceptable, and it was paternalistic to tell the band what it should do, or want.
Chief Wallace noted she had received a text from developer Larry Les early that morning, sharing the press release with her that would later be sent to media. Les did not respond to an email or phone call from the The Progress directly.
The press release stressed the economic benefits in store for Soowahlie after the development is built on land leased by a band member, includes “$40 million in property tax revenue” that the Soowahlie could use to “build homes for band members,” according to the release.
“Soowahlie would love to see some type of growth,” Wallace said. “As long as the community agrees upon it, then I think it would be ok, if it generates employment or other benefits for the community in its entirety.”
Soowahlie has 170 members living on-reserve, the majority at a community meeting said no to this development.
“But with 250 new neighbours suddenly living so close to our residential area, it would feel invasive,” she said.
Developer Larry Les of Genica Development said in his release “jobs and training” are available if the band approves the development, which would see between 200 and 250 units.
With a “serviced subdivision on band land adjacent to the proposed Cultus Lake Crossing development” there could be housing provided “for band members including single parents and elders.”
Hiring preference would go to band members who could be trained as labourers, equipment operators, framers, plumbers, electricians, siders and finishing carpenters, he promised.
“Trained band members could use these skills to provide housing for their own members on land that is already serviced and ready,” Les said in the release.
Since they passed a taxation law last year, Soowahlie can collect property taxes on the project.
“The economic impacts that we would see would definitely be great – but social and environmental impacts would be far greater,” said Wallace.
Even benefits like receiving 20 per cent of the revenue from the leasing is not enough.
Soowahlie band council member Tanya Commodore said she came to the protest because the community asked them to be there.
“They asked for our support to be here, to help them with this and to do it in a good way,” she said. “I feel we need to save the land for our future generations.”
But another “huge point” to get across is how “not in order” the INAC process has been.
“We want to make sure our water is protected, and I’m not sure they have this at the top of their list.
“But that is what is at the top of our list, to make the the land and water is safe for all our future generations and right now, Soowahlie has some of the cleanest water,” she said.
“We brought our own water today. We didn’t bring bottled water, we brought our own water.”
Soowahlie Elder Margaret Commodore said the process has been a “sneaky” one.
In fact, there’s a history of Soowahlie leaders and membership fiercely objecting to a housing development on this same parcel of land, dating back to 2009. The CP holder in question is her sister-in-law, Commodore said, a well-respected Soowahlie band member, who has no aboriginal blood. Commodore said it isn’t a matter of her or anyone having issues with her late brother’s wife.
But she questioned how “closely” INAC officials have been working with the developer on this lease agreement, as evidenced at the community meeting in March.
“In my opinion they can’t do it for so many reasons, and simply because they did it in the wrong manner.”
If it has to end up in court, it likely will, said the elder.
“We’re not letting go,” Commodore said.
More about the locatee lease process here.