Municipalities turn up heat over province's closed-door dealings with First Nations

Local governments will turn up the pressure on the province to end their secretive dealings with First Nations when the Union of B.C. Municipalities meets this month.

What flared up briefly as a small skirmish over dock-owners' rights in Pender Harbour blew up spectacularly for Premier John Horgan's government last spring when a wide-ranging land-use plan to conserve caribou was sprung on the residents of northeastern B.C.

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People in both locales were furious that they had been cut out of the process and in the case of the caribou recovery plan, the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations had been given gag orders by the province that prevented them from disclosing the plan to their neighbour communities.

So many municipalities have submitted resolutions demanding consultation in future agreements between First Nations and the province that the UBCM executive has made the issue its top priority for the coming year, said vice-president Brian Frenkel, a Vanderhoof councillor.

"There are five similar resolutions -- we've seen them from the Northern Rockies, the Sunshine Coast, Vernon and Fort St. John. So that vaulted this to the top of our agenda," he said.

Land-use processes designed by the province and First Nations are expected to be applied across B.C. in the years to come, but the system relegates municipalities and regional districts to "stakeholder" status, according to the UBCM's annual report.

"The Community Charter recognizes local governments as an order of government, and that we should be working together on areas of mutual interest," said Frenkel. "We aren't just a box to be ticked by the province."

More than 300 private dock owners in Pender Harbour were shocked when a new dock management plan hatched by the province and the shshlh (Sechelt) First Nation was announced last year. Several dozen docks will be demolished under the new rules.

The plan is part of a package of First Nations reconciliation agreements that give the shshlh a role in forest management, revenue-sharing and title to several parcels of Crown land.

The dock plan effectively sidelined the Sunshine Coast Regional District's Official Community Plan, which local governments and community groups had been crafting for years, said district director Leonard Lee.

In the northeast, a meeting organized with local governments by provincial Minister of Forests Doug Donaldson to explain the plight of the southern mountain caribou and the federal Species at Risk Act seemed to bode well for a transparent process, said Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead.

But that's not how it went down.

"We were left on the sidelines after that for a long, long time," said Bumstead. "That was frustrating for us because we were hearing rumours that things were moving along on a partnership agreement with the First Nations, but we were being excluded."

The release of the draft plan caused such an uproar that Horgan recruited former MLA Blair Lekstrom as a special envoy to try to smooth things over.

"It was a really big miss for them in terms of not bringing local communities and residents into that process," said Bumstead. "We have a relationship agreement with the Saulteau First Nation and we build communities together. It's built on a foundation of trust."

When it was revealed that the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations had to sign non-disclosure agreements, it was clear that the provincial government did not share that trust with northern communities, he said.

A rushed round of public consultations did little to assuage locals, who are concerned that the deal will interfere with resource development and recreational access to the backcountry.

The ministry of Indigenous relations and reconciliation notes that the province and the UBCM renewed a memorandum of understanding last year that provides a framework for local government engagement of First Nations treaty and non-treaty agreements.

"In all cases, it is important that local governments have a good understanding of the goals and intentions, and any concerns have been identified and mitigated," the ministry said in response to Postmedia's questions. "That means being transparent and proactively engaging with those affected."

The ministry said it builds a stakeholder engagement plan appropriate to every negotiation, which includes local governments.

However, Lekstrom found the government lacking in that area and recommended that "engagement must be done in a manner that is inclusive, transparent and be given the time to achieve public support."

But that is not going to be good enough for aggrieved municipalities.

UBCM Special Resolution 1 seeks a thorough overhaul of the provincial government's approach to First Nations reconciliation and government-to-government negotiations, which it claims violate the "principles espoused within the Community Charter."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, believes there is room at the table for everyone.

"There has to be a more constructive effort made to be inclusive in regard to these issues," he said. "There should have been opportunities for all parties to be involved."

Many B.C. First Nations already have protocol agreements with municipalities and regional governments.

"It lays out a number of processes and procedures vis-a-vis dispute resolution, and those are pretty helpful on some of these issues," he said.

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