Approximately 100 concerned citizens swarmed the Strathcona Regional District offices Wednesday to learn about a proposed First Nations reserve on York Road they say blindsided them.
Peter Sprout, a retiree who lives in the York Road area, said the process has been unfair.
“I get the confidentiality agreements but it just seems like a backdoor deal and we’re going to take it on the chin,” Sprout said, adding that the proposal will put his property – that he poured his life savings into – in jeopardy.
“I have no issue with anybody buying private land, whether it be First Nations or anybody, but I do take issue with the petition to turn it into reserve lands,” Sprout said during the regional district’s meeting of electoral directors Wednesday. “Call it bias or not but there is a stigmatism associated with a reservation. It will devalue my property.”
Sprout is not alone.
Spray painted messages that say ‘No Rez’ have popped up on Sold signs marking the property and on York Road.
The graffiti appeared shortly after plans for the reserve came to light publicly last week after the Tlowitsis First Nation asked the regional district for a letter of support for the nation’s proposed land development of five lots on the north side of York Road, west of Craig Road.
According to a report by Aniko Nelson, the regional district’s parks and planning manager, “a number of communications have occurred over the past two years between senior staff and the Tlowitsis First Nation regarding the potential purchase” of the TimberWest lands, with the most recent meeting taking place on Dec. 8, 2015.
During this meeting, Tlowitsis Nation Chief John Smith advised the Area D Director Brenda Leigh and regional district staff that the TimberWest property would provide a central home base for up to 100 members of the Nation in an effort to establish a home community for its members. The Tlowitsis Nation currently consists of approximately 425 members who are spread out among the remote coastal areas of northeastern Vancouver Island and adjacent mainland inlets.
Bob Solc, vice-president of the Area D Ratepayers Association, took Area D Director Brenda Leigh to task for not informing her constituents about the proposal sooner.
“Why didn’t our director stand up and call a meeting immediately?” Solc asked. “There are still people in our community that know nothing about it and they need to be advised immediately. An elected official is here to represent the people, they need to come forward to us.”
Leigh said when she met with Chief Smith the proposal was in the preliminary stages and she was not legally permitted to say anything.
“The proposal seemed very preliminary and speculative,” Leigh said. “There were no detailed drawings, no engineered reports, no data provided that would indicate that this proposal was anything other than speculative.
“All the printed information that was given to me was stamped ‘confidential’ and I knew that any land purchase for ‘fee simple’ ownership remains confidential until it is ready to be released by the applicant.”
Dave Leitch, the regional district’s chief administrative officer, confirmed Leigh’s statement. He said the Tlowitsis First Nation and the province had had lengthy discussions for nearly two years about finding land for the Tlowitsis but the regional district was not involved until recently, when it was asked for a letter of support for the proposal.
“There is not a veil of secrecy, this is the process we have to go through,” Leitch said. “I apologize that it’s not a better one.”
Leitch’s explanation, however, did not settle other concerns voiced by those who live in Area D (the rural area just south of Campbell River city limits) such as loss of property values, and potential cost increases to taxpayers for fire, water and sewage services that would need to be available on the Tlowitsis Nation reserve.
Terry Honig said there are environmental, water, septic, drainage, site access, traffic, and safety issues that all need to be addressed. She also pointed out that fire protection “could be another huge issue” and that there “will be no school to attend” with School District 72 making the decision last month to close Oyster River Elementary.
Wayne and Cheryl Anderson, long-time residents of York Road, said they have several concerns with the industrial plans for the reserve.
“We are a rural community and would like to remain that way,” they wrote in a letter to the regional district board. “We also have questions on how it will effect our property values and taxes.”
Resident Dave Fried agreed.
“I’m deeply concerned about my quality of life down the road,” he said. “Property values are going to plummet. I’m really upset about the whole thing.”
Leigh attempted to calm everyone’s fears by telling the gallery that the Tlowitsis’ purchase of the TimberWest lands is “subject to” the federal government approving the Nation’s application for Addition to Reserve and therefore is by no means a done deal.
Chief Smith, however, said the “Tlowitsis First Nation has reached a deal with TimberWest through its Couverdon subsidiary for the purchase of lots 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 of their York Road properties” and that the Nation is in the final stages of completing its application package for additional reserve land.
Leigh, though, said it’s still far from over.
“I wish to make it clear that until the public consultation process happens with Area D people, there is no done deal,” Leigh said. “I am not in favour of locating an Addition to Reserve at this point because, as far as I am concerned, the consultation has not begun.”
Area C Director Jim Abram said he also was not prepared to sign off on a letter of support.
“I could not in good conscience write a letter of support as has been asked,” Abram said. “As far as I’m concerned, yes, we do have grave concerns. My concern is more to do with the deletion of a large area of Area D and the loss of tax revenue.
“This will not only affect Area D, it will increase the burden to all other electoral areas, since we will have to make up the loss from that area that is deleted.”
In the end, the four directors on the Electoral Area Services Committee directed its staff to come back with a report addressing several points drafted by Leigh that include tax considerations, when meetings with Area D residents will be held, what is proposed for the land, how safe, clean drinking water will be supplied, and how emergency services, policing, environmental issues, transportation and schooling will be addressed.
The committee of electoral directors asked regional district staff to report back at the soonest possible committee meeting.
The Strathcona Regional District meeting space was filled to capacity, and spilled out the doors, with residents concerned about a proposed First Nations reserve on York Road.