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Family on thin edge of the wedge
Bruce Cuthbert is walking along the dike with his two dogs on Brunswick Point in Ladner when he stops and points.
“My great grandfather diked this property, he created land out here in the early days,” he says. “It was all underwater when he got here.”
Cuthbert is talking about his great grandfather Paul Swenson Sr., who purchased 80 hectares of Brunswick Point in 1889 from the Crown. He and his children farmed the property for the next 80 years when it, along with thousands of hectares of farmland, was expropriated by the provincial government for the Roberts Bank Superport construction.
The Social Credit government of the day was planning to build a huge industrial park and all the farmland leading to the port was threatened. But when the NDP government and the Agricultural Land Reserve was ushered into power in 1972, families like the Swensons got their land back. Well, most of it.
One parcel of land, a mere 1.67 hectares, was still occupied by the Brunswick Cannery, which Paul Swenson Sr. helped to build in 1910.
The province has held on to the the tiny property, known as the Wedge parcel because it resembles a slice of land resembling a pizza wedge, ever since.
During the 2007 treaty negotiations with the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN), however, the province agreed to provide the former Indian Band with the first right of refusal on the sale. Now the province is planning to subdivide and sell the overgrown forested area, and it wants the Corporation of Delta to approve the subdivision.
That doesn’t sit well with Cuthbert, who is concerned it could be developed by TFN once it gets absorbed into treaty lands.
“My particular reaction is it’s best left in the hands of the provincial government,” he said. “There’s nothing mandating the government to sell the property.”
Rod Swenson, first cousin of Cuthbert, farms 140 hectares of land in Delta, including the swath that surrounds the wedge. He’d like to see the land that originally belonged to his great grandfather returned to the family.
“Anything that interferes with the farming I don’t like,” he said “If this parcel is given to the First Nations I don’t know what they could possibly put on it. The best thing to do would be to put it back on the farm.”
The issue came back before council last Monday, when Coun. Ian Paton said he was disappointed a solution could not be found to return the land to the family.
“I thought that we were going to make an effort to convince the province that perhaps that piece of land should go back to the original owners, the Swenson family,” he said.
In a delegation sent to council last month by the ministry of forests, lands, and natural resource operations, it was suggested that the municipality place a restrictive covenant on the land prohibiting development. But council was skeptical such a document would be enforceable once it is turned over to TFN.
Chief administrative officer George Harvie said that in previous meetings with the TFN they have indicated an interest to purchase the land.
“There’s no question that the treaty allows–and the province has set this up–the Tsawwassen First Nation has the right of first refusal of any of those properties,” said Harvie.
He said Delta might support the subdivision with the understanding that the wedge parcel would not be developed and would be left in its current state. But the municipality is unsure how it’s enforceable under municipal laws, and has left it up to the province to proceed with rezoning.
“The challenge for staff is, how we can freeze in time what is there now without any development,” said Harvie. “It’s for the enjoyment of the residents that are using it now, both the Tsawwassen First Nation residents and also the Corporation of Delta.”
Council has sent a letter to the province asking it what direction it plans to take with the land. Meanwhile, the Swenson family wait and wonder.
Bruce Cuthbert said he doesn’t have any issues with TFN following through on an agreement they have with the province through their treaty negotiations, but would like people to think of the family history.
“Our family suffered the heartache of seeing the farm they had farmed for 80 years taken from them via expropriation in 1968,” he said. “Many family members experienced stress and other health implications in the years following expropriation as they dealt with the loss of their land and an uncertain future.”