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City-First Nation talks hit an impasse

Memorial Park upgrade a sticking point between White Rock and Semiahmoo councils
File photo White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell exchange views after Chappell presented a cease-and-desist order at the Memorial Park site on Sept. 14.

An in-camera meeting between White Rock council and Semiahmoo First Nation’s council hit a roadblock Thursday morning over the Memorial Park upgrade.

Mayor Wayne Baldwin told Peace Arch News Friday that a request to SFN for the city to go ahead with the stalled $5.6 million waterfront project had been rebuffed, with SFN council members Joanne Charles, Roxanne Charles and Chief Harley Chappell leaving the meeting in protest, and talking of ‘lack of respect.’

But according to Chappell, the SFN council was feeling pressured – in a meeting he agreed was ‘tense’ – to sign an agreement to let the work continue in exchange for a sought-after extension of city water services to the reserve (White Rock had originally said it would terminate service in February 2018).

“It was like ‘we need immediate approval of the museum project and then we’ll negotiate the extension,’” he said.

“That’s very troublesome – it’s a quality-of-life issue. I said that I felt like I’m in a hostage negotiation over water. We have a lot of other issues we brought to the meeting that weren’t even addressed. We never got past number one.”

Chappell said he was confused by a letter emailed to him later on Thursday by Baldwin, in which the city offers to extend water services to Dec. 31, 2019 (SFN had been asking for March 31) to ensure there is no “gap in service” before SFN hooks up to Surrey’s water distribution system.

In the letter, Baldwin asks only that SFN allow city staff access to the drainage pump station for maintenance purposes, and eventually to remove the structure, once a replacement facility is built in White Rock.

“We are of the view that we can work together making processes and our relationships stronger moving forward and we will continue to strive toward this goal,” Baldwin writes.

The conciliatory tone of the letter, Chappell said, was far different from the atmosphere at the meeting, at which Baldwin did most of the talking on behalf of the city.

“I don’t know how to take it,” Chappell said. “Our conversation at the meeting was all about Memorial Park. I don’t know where that comes from.”

On Friday, Baldwin told PAN the Memorial Park project must move ahead within two weeks, or taxpayers would face associated costs for the delay and maybe even cancellation of the project entirely.

“It’s not a great situation,” he said. “We have a $4.5-million (sic) project, we have a contractor committed to it, who gave up other work to do it. It would cost the public quite a bit of money to cancel that contract. We have a legal opinion that we have every right to do the work on what is, essentially, federal lands.”

Baldwin said the city is focused on meeting the deadline of having the upgrade complete by next summer, as part of its compact with waterfront businesses who are losing parking because of the design.

“It’s getting a little iffy. We’ll have lost over a month.”

The project was shut down Sept. 14, when Chappell and the other SFN council members presented a cease-and-desist order to the city at what was to have been an official ground-breaking ceremony at the site, adjacent to the White Rock Museum and Archives.

They said at the time that SFN had not been consulted during the project design process and archeological protection protocols had not been observed on land that is SFN ancestral territory.

That led to an impromptu discussion between members of both councils at city hall, and a commitment to Thursday’s meeting.

Chappell reiterated last week that his council is not opposed to the city upgrading the park – but it requires consultation with the SFN council, with SFN’s archeologist and other overlapping Lower Mainland First Nations involved in treaty negotiations.

“They had ample time to do this and chose not to,” he said.

“I said at the meeting this was a very easy fix if this had been done some time ago, if the relationship was there.”

Baldwin told PAN that it is unlikely that Memorial Park work would disturb any significant historic sites or ancestral remains.

“We tried to point out (to them) that the park is sitting on up to 12 feet of fill above the original ground level, but, notwithstanding that, we’d be happy to have an archeologist on site,” he said.

Chappell said that, based on other archaelogical sites involving First Nations, there could be significant finds that might not include human remains, but could be key in filling in gaps in the history of the Semiahmoo people.

He said that arguing that previous development of the waterfront has established a precedent is besides the point, as First Nations people were not at the table when such decisions were made.

“It might have not been done properly in the first place,” he said. “In an era of reconciliation, taking the old way of doing things is not the proper way.’

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