Two weeks after discussions between the City of White Rock and the Semiahmoo First Nation broke down over the Memorial Park upgrade issue, Mayor Wayne Baldwin said the question of whether work can proceed is still up in the air.
Meanwhile, SFN Chief Harley Chappell termed “ludicrous” any speculation that development plans for SFN lands – including Semiahmoo Park – are motivating current concerns about receiving an extension on water services from White Rock or spurring its demand for consultation on the Memorial Park project .
“We have no plans for our parkland – yet,” Chappell told PAN.
“A municipality has a duty to consult. The BNSF, which leases the waterfront land to the city, has an understanding with us that their whole right of way in White Rock and South Surrey is on our historic village sites.”
After Chappell and SFN councillors Joanne Charles and Roxanne Charles walked out of an Oct. 5 in-camera meeting with city council – which stalled during discussions of the waterfront project, sited on ancestral SFN territory – Baldwin said work could not afford to wait more than two weeks, because of commitments to contractor Fricia Construction Ltd. and promises to the community and businesses to have the park complete by summer 2018.
The SFN had delivered a cease-and-desist order at the start of the project’s groundbreaking ceremony Sept. 14 – citing the location of a potential ancient burial ground and a complete lack of consultation – and the project has been in limbo since.
SFN Chief Harley Chappell delivers a cease-and-desist order to White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin Sept. 14. (File video)
Baldwin told Peace Arch News Thursday morning that construction of the project would not make the Friday deadline, and that taxpayers will be billed for an extension, citing compensation for the lost time by paying for weekend work and possibly overtime to get the project completed through the summer.
The project cannot go ahead until the city receives clarification from the provincial authorities on whether it has the right to proceed, even with SFN objections, Baldwin said.
He said the city was told by the province – in writing – that the city didn’t need to consult with any neighbouring municipalities for the project.
“Since then, they’ve been waffling on it,” Baldwin added.
The mayor said that if they were to “risk it” and go ahead with the development before getting confirmation from the province, then the province could delay the project for as long as 120 days.
“We’re not too much in favour of putting it at risk.”
The mayor said it’s too early to give an exact figure on how much the extension will cost per day – “but it’s not going to be cheap.”
“It’s just a matter of putting pressure on us, I would think. There would have been more graceful ways of dealing with it,” Baldwin said of the public manner in which the cease-and-desist order was delivered.
“If one were want to sustain a relationship or build a relationship, one would not grandstand that way. They ambushed us, basically. Took us totally by surprise in terms of their objections to it because obviously we have done a bit of work there before.”
Contacted by PAN Friday, Chappell said the land on which Memorial Park sits was only one of six to eight outstanding issues between SFN and White Rock that were not being addressed by council and city staff.
“I’ve offered my services half a dozen times to work through the outstanding issues. At least Memorial Park brought us to a headway – it sparked a conversation. At least it’s gotten us to the table and started some conversation and consultation.”
City officials had a closed-door meeting regarding the Memorial Park upgrade project Wednesday evening. Following that meeting, Baldwin said the city will send a letter to the First Nation that will “probably answer most of your questions.”
“I can say in advance that we have offered the band what we thought was their key problem, which they made it abundantly clear – at one time anyways – was that they were afraid they were going to be left for a period of time without a water supply,” Baldwin said.
In August 2016, the city had given SFN 18 months to secure a new water supply in the midst of a dispute over access to a old city pumping station on SFN property, access the city claims it needs to maintain the station and, eventually, dismantle it in favour of a new facility off the reserve.
A followup letter to SFN council – sent soon after the Oct. 5 meeting – confirmed the city’s intention to extend water services to Dec. 31, 2019.
Asked what relationship the Memorial Park upgrades has with the city supplying water to SFN, Baldwin said SFN’s action to stop upgrades was because of the water issues. He said development on city lands adjacent to the railway tracks has “never been an issue” in past projects.
“And now, it’s an issue,” Baldwin said. “The only thing that I can think of, that creates it as an issue is the fact that there’s some difficulty with the water. So we would have to say that’s part of a bargaining position to publicize their situations to gain public sympathy.”
(Chappell had reported after the meeting that the SFN council was feeling pressured to sign an agreement to let the Memorial Park work continue in exchange for an extension of city water services to the reserve.)
Through correspondence with the SFN, Baldwin said, the city has learned that water is only one of the issues delaying the Memorial Park upgrade project.
“There’s other things going on that we’re not privy to,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said the city is aware of rumours – fueled by a recent joint-venture agreement between SFN and Tybo Contracting Ltd. – that the SFN is contemplating “anything from a multi-family development to a casino” for its lands.
He said the city cannot give SFN unlimited water supply without knowing how much they’re going to need, or whether the city has the capacity to supply it. Baldwin said the SFN has not responded to the city’s questions about the rumoured project.
“We think there’s more going on here then meets the eye so we’ll just wait and see.”
“That, to me, is ludicrous,” Chappell responded, adding that the SFN agreement with Tybo concerns civil construction work related to upgrading the nation’s infrastructure.
“My understanding is that part of the reason we were given the termination notice is the lack of capacity of White Rock’s water system at the bottom of the hill. I understand it all goes back to the fire at Five Corners, when they started running the wells dry.
“At the same time they’re building all these highrises uptown – they’re going to find the capability there? It doesn’t make sense.
“My question is how can a municipality serve termination notice on the quality of life of a neighbouring community? The quality of life is not a bargaining tool.”
Chappell said current discussions only strengthen the determination to upgrade the infrastructure.
“We’re working toward the day we can hook up to Surrey’s water supply,” Chappell said.
“By this time next year it will be a different story.”