A housing development proposal for 250 homes on Soowahlie First Nation land is facing fierce opposition from the community.
Soowahlie leadership filed a band council resolution this week in a last-ditch effort to stop Indian and Northern Affairs Canada from “unilaterally” approving the lease for a residential development.
“The process for the proposed 99-year commercial lease is fraught with paternalistic activities by INAC officials that threaten to create and foster long-term social impacts to the community,” said Chief Brenda Wallace.
The lease development proposed by Genica Development Corp, owned by Larry Les, would see the homes on 28 acres of reserve land, which is owned by a Soowahlie member with a Certificate of Possession (CP).
There’s a history of Soowahlie leaders and members objecting to a housing development on this parcel of land, dating back to 2009.
“The process has essentially prevented Soowahlie citizens and leadership from having any meaningful involvement in the decision-making process,” said Wallace.
“If INAC and the developer had their way, construction would already be underway despite the clear objections voiced by Soowahlie leadership and citizens,” said Wallace.
Regional INAC officials sent a copy of the commercial lease to the band with suggested wording, and later received calls by way of followup to see if band leadership had signed the documents yet.
INAC officials sent an email to the Progress this week to say it’s still under review.
“The Department is reviewing the leasing of Lot 4 Plan 62823 on behalf of the Locatee under provisions of the Indian Act. The process follows the guidelines of the Locatee Lease Policy and Directive.”
They also confirmed their presence at a community meeting recently.
“On March 11, 2016, the Department attended a community meeting to answer questions on the Locatee Lease Policy and Directive.
“We are following up with Chief and Council to identify their specific concerns for departmental consideration, and will also follow up with the Locatee before making a formal decision on the lease development.”
Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, and a former Soowahlie chief, is asking the federal government to step in.
Two ministers received letters from Kelly asking for ministerial intervention to halt the approval of the lease on Soowahlie land.
“I am writing to advise you that a significant majority of Soowahlie members from all of our extended families are opposed to this proposed development,” Kelly wrote.
The INAC reps who attended a recent community meeting at Soowahlie stated they were unaware of any opposition to the development, he said.
“In spite of past Band Council resolutions, correspondence, and community referendums, the two INAC BC Regional officials advised their BC A/Regional Director General that they were not aware of council or community opposition,” Kelly wrote.
Something should be done to stop “junior ministers” from having the power to approve such leases “over the objections” of duly elected First Nation band councils and membership, he added.
“I am asking for your immediate intervention to assist Soowahlie members. I ask that you direct your regional officials to cease immediately the processing of the 99-year Lease for a housing development on Lots 4-5, 4-6 and 4-7 until Soowahlie members vote on our Land Code next month.”
Kelly said the proposal is with a CP holder, who is a Soowahlie member and non-aboriginal, who obtained status by marrying a Soowahlie band member. Although she is a “respected and beloved community member” there are serious issues at play, he said.
“A non-aboriginal person that acquired Status under racist provisions of the Indian Act should not reap economic benefits intended for Soowahlie members,” Kelly wrote.
The CP was issued to the current land owner’s late husband in the early 1970s.
But the development poses a threat to the aquifer, and there are traffic and other concerns.
“It’s certainly not the highest and best use of our land,” Kelly said, adding that only the land owner stands to benefit. “We’ll be stuck with it. But that land is meant to be of benefit to Soowahlie.”
There are about 70 homes now on Soowahlie territory. With the development it would increase more than four-fold.
“It’s just bad business,” said Grand Chief Kelly. “What business man with integrity would go into a community and build 250 houses that the community does not want?”
The timing is also an issue, he said. Soowahlie is very close to passing a Land Code right now, to have more direct say on what happens on their land, and to ensure proposals are consistent with community values.
Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl emailed a response to questions from the Progress to say he is “encouraged” that Soowahlie First Nation is proceeding with its own land code.
“I am proud of our previous Conservative government’s efforts to promote the First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA) which allows First Nations, on a voluntary basis, to opt out of 34 land related sections of the Indian Act and make decisions on their own lands without the approval of the Minister of Indigenous Affairs.
“This gives greater local control to First Nations governments over their lands.”
Strahl noted that “lands held by an individual holding a Certificate of Possession (CP)” do provide some leeway.
“(They) give the possession holder great latitude and individual control over what may be done with those lands.
“Indeed, some of the large residential leasehold developments in the Chilliwack area have been built on lands held by individual CP holders,” Strahl said in the statement.
“Some of the most difficult decisions that governments must make involve reconciling competing rights. Where the collective rights of a community compete with the individual rights of a possession holder as in this case, those choices can be very difficult.
“Hopefully, the Government of Canada can play a role to help the two sides come to a mutually beneficial agreement. If not, I suspect the only way this matter will be resolved is through the courts.”
Genica Development and Larry Les did not return a call or reply to an email from The Progress this week.
Despite everything Chief Wallace is staying positive.
“Soowahlie First Nation believes that there can be a positive way forward that will look after the best interests of the Soowahlie community as a whole, including the CP holder of the land.
“SFN leadership is currently developing a process that includes community engagement while at the same time analyzing the highest and best use of the land parcel in question based on community-driven priorities, and not just financial ones.
“We hope that INAC will work with us through this process as we move towards the best possible result for all Soowahlie members.”