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Federal changes could see farmland lost to First Nation reserves
Delta Council is concerned that federal changes to a policy governing Indian Reserve lands in Canada will give First Nations broad and sweeping powers to take land away from farmers and the municipality.
The federal government is drafting an update to its Additions-to-Reserve (ATR) Policy, originally created in 1972 to bridge a legislative gap between the Indian Act and federal law which sets out conditions before land can be added to Indian Reserves.
But local governments argue that “gaping holes” in the consultation process would leave land vulnerable to First Nations groups who may apply to add lands to their reserve even if they fall outside their traditional territories.
“I have become increasingly concerned about the direction this topic is taking,” said Mayor Lois Jackson. “And it’s not just here, it’s just everywhere in the country that this legislation appears to be overtaking many of us.”
Part of those concerns surround a new draft ATR Policy allowing First Nations to add to an existing reserve for economic development purposes. According to the proposed changes, those lands can be added even where they fall outside of the traditional or treaty territory, so long as the majority of the First Nation’s existing reserve land is located within the province.
When land is approved for addition to a reserve, all local government bylaws become inapplicable, and there are even fears that lands currently within the Agricultural Land Reserve would not be protected.
Under the draft document, First Nation groups applying for land to be set aside in reserve must notify local governments, but it’s unclear whether municipal input is needed. No veto power exists for local or provincial governments to prevent the application.
“It appears that the federal government is not listening to local government or understanding what the consequences are for some of the legislation they’re proposing,” said Jackson. “Any Indian Band throughout British Columbia could simply come and buy 125 acres of the best farmland anywhere in Delta and could proceed to develop into industry and commerce, yet the farmer that is sitting on that land has not the same right.”
Council agreed that members of the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities must work together to identify what protection they have against the federal changes.
Delta has been impacted by First Nation land deals several times in the past. The 2007 treaty with Tsawwassen First Nation and the federal and provincial governments included 433 hectares of ALR farmland, some of which will now be used for economic development in the form of houses, mega malls and industrial space. As well, when the Vancouver International Airport expanded 20 years ago, the Musqueam Nation received 142 hectares in Ladner as compensation.
“When I read the Delta context here, any First Nation with the majority of the reserve land in B.C. could purchase land in Delta from a willing private seller and apply to have this land included as part of the reserve,” said Coun. Ian Paton.
Paton said Delta has prime agricultural soil that could potentially be sold to the Tsawwassen First Nation, taken out of the ALR, and used for economic purposes.
Delta’s chief administrative officer George Harvie said staff were “shocked” to learn about the proposed changes.
“That’s going to be a huge impact on us insofar as destruction of our agricultural lands, and also our tax base,” he said.
Harvie said that if Delta lands are lost to First Nation Reserves, the municipality should be compensated based on the property taxes for whatever is developed on the land.
Jackson said she is becoming “disillusioned about what’s fair in this country,” adding local governments aren’t being consulted on decisions that directly affect them.
Another uncertainty within the draft policy is whether adding a parcel to an Indian Reserve would require local government to provide infrastructure for sanitation and drinking water under federal law.
Under the current legislation, parcels can be added to an existing Indian Reserve to accommodate community growth and to meet social needs, but in recent years First Nations groups have criticized the policy as being needlessly complex, ineffective, time-consuming and unduly restrictive.
In response to this criticism, the federal government and Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples initiated a review in 2010. Although First Nations were invited for consultation by the Senate Committee in February 2012, this invitation was not extended to local or regional governments.
The UBCM recently requested feedback on the draft policy from members, while the Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Relations Committee has requested member feedback by Sept. 20.