COLUMN: First Nation autonomy is win-win

Bryce Williams named new chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation

The election of 23-year-old Bryce Williams as new chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation is historic, for a number of reasons.

For starters, he is one of the younger leaders of any government to be elected – including native bands.

But he is also the new chief of a First Nation that now, because of its historic signing and ratification of a treaty, is a self-governing and autonomous body.

TFN has many more powers and responsibilities than most of its fellow B.C. First Nations. Many others hope to follow in its footsteps.

Williams has said he and the new legislators elected plan to stay the course with the economic development plans that have been developed since TFN became autonomous. No longer does the TFN have to submit its plans to Ottawa and await a federal bureaucrat’s decision on its future.

These plans include a major shopping centre, to be built by a private developer near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, and a series of business facilities that will serve as support for the nearby Roberts Bank port facility.

Some of these will be built on farms that were initially expropriated from their owners under the W.A.C. Bennett government in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to serve as back-up lands for the port, which was then under construction.

Since that time, those farms were put into the Agricultural Land Reserve, and with the treaty signing, went to the TFN. The ALR does not apply to native lands.

While some have decried the loss of agricultural land (and it is good farmland), this is a classic case of balancing competing interests.

The signing of a treaty with an urban First Nation was rightly deemed historic, and the very existence of a treaty means that First Nations members have control over their own lands.

While it would be wonderful to see farming continue on those lands, the original expropriation more than 40 years ago was for the same purpose that TFN now has for the land.

A discussion on a Vancouver radio station about the Tsawwassen treaty this week prompted an interesting call from a Delta resident. She stated that one of the benefits of the TFN treaty is that it helps to bring forward to the broader community the special cultural significance that TFN adds to the larger community of Delta, and the Lower Mainland.

That’s a fascinating point, and it is true. Williams himself is a carver. His people include many talented artisans. But because TFN now has a much different and more secure role in the region, what happens on its lands matters a great deal more than it used to.

As the caller stated, they are the original residents of Delta. The TFN members bring a sense of place to Tsawwassen that no one else can.

This is also true of other First Nations in our region, including the Semiahmoo at White Rock, the Katzie on Barnston Island and the Kwantlen in Langley.

Each of these First Nations plays a very significant role in both our collective history as a region, and the present day. When they are given the ability to have more control over their lives, their economy and their lands, in the end everyone will win.

It is also important to pay respect to outgoing Tsawwassen chief Kim Baird, who was defeated in the election by Williams. She brought her people a long ways from where they were, and there were those who disagreed with her goals to sign a treaty and become self-governing.

However, she proved to be a valuable leader and visionary, for both TFN and for First Nations people in B.C.

She achieved a great deal and deserves thanks from all of us.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.