White Rock’s mayor says a claim by Semiahmoo First Nation that the city has warned water to their reserve will be cut off in 18 months is exaggerated.
Wayne Baldwin said in a phone interview Thursday – after Peace Arch News’ press deadline for Friday’s print edition – that the city’s lawyer sent a letter Aug. 29 advising the band the step was among “possible consequences” if ongoing negotiations between the city and SFN surrounding the provision of services don’t reach a mutually agreed upon end.
“What it is, is there’s negotiations going on with the Semiahmoo First Nation, so there’s a lot of issues involved,” Baldwin told PAN. “It’s a possible outcome if we can’t come to some sort of negotiated agreement that makes sense.
“They’ve taken that and run with it.”
In a news release issued Wednesday night and received by PAN late Thursday morning, Semiahmoo officials said the city’s letter was notice of service termination.
Thursday afternoon, band councillor Joanne Charles told PAN that the notice left no room for doubt.
“It’s pretty clear,” Charles said.
The letter states it is “formal notice that the city will terminate existing water and sanitary-sewer services to the reserve within a reasonable time… being that of 18 months,” she said, reading from the letter, though she said she could not provide a copy of the letter as it in the hands of lawyers.
“It’s their belief the Nation would be better-positioned to have water and sanitary services provided by the City of Surrey.”
The reserve’s current water supply has been in place since 1970. The reserve – located entirely in Surrey, but under its own governance – has no municipal sewage system and has been operating under a permanent boil-water advisory since 2005.
Charles said she’s been told the process of switching to a Surrey-supplied system would take three to five years.
The Aug. 29 letter, she said, is the second from the city in recent months regarding cutting services – the first, issued in June, gave 30-days notice of termination of garbage pickup.
Other areas impacted have been the washroom building in Semiahmoo Park – for which the city, in May, said turning over the keys would enable the SFN to decide the facility’s future – and the removal of Surrey garbage cans from area sidewalks.
While Baldwin told PAN the latest notice stemmed from unsuccessful negotiations – “they don’t want to meet with staff,” he said – Charles disputed that any negotiations have taken place. The band has asked for a council-to-council meeting, she said, however, “the only staff we’re allowed to meet with is (chief administrative officer) Dan Bottrill.”
That protocol, added Charles, was set by the city without any negotiation.
According to a city news release issued just after 3 p.m. Thursday to counter the band’s claims, a sticking point has been the city-owned pump station located on band land near Stayte Road. The city received a letter from the band’s lawyer in March noting “the City was in trespass for maintaining pump station infrastructure on First Nation land,” the release states.
In addition to threats of arrest, the First Nation has asked the city to remove the pump station and infrastructure – which Baldwin told PAN would cost “millions” – a request the release notes was “very troubling for the City to hear and understand given the steps the City has taken to support the First Nation as they have had a water advisory in place for a number of years.”
The news release cites city efforts to support the band over the years have included advocating on their behalf for funding to upgrade their water-distribution system.
The 18-month deadline could be extended, it adds.
“If they come back with an action plan on how they will get their new permanent water supply and need the City to extend the 18 month timeline, we will consider it,” Baldwin said in the release. “Especially since I’ve heard rumblings of the First Nation doing a major commercial development, which if true, may affect White Rock’s water capacity.”
Baldwin said the band has “a lot of expectations” of the city, but is offering nothing in return.
White Rock council last May decided to formalize its relationship with the band and adopted a recommendation from staff that advocated action on a number of issues, including negotiating a service agreement for the bulk water supply and sanitary sewer services currently provided to SFN.
While Baldwin questioned the timing of the band’s news release this week – “I don’t know if this is part of their (council) election process or what, but I don’t like to negotiate through the media” – Charles responded that the issue is the termination of water services to a community.
The release was “to inform the public of the things Semiahmoo is having to go through.
“It’s a pretty serious issue,” she said.
She said that while the band and city have historically enjoyed a good relationship, “something has changed” in the past 2½ years.