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More dialogue with First Nations partners

One of the opportunities bidding for the 2010 Olympics brought to the province of British Columbia was to involve the Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueum and Tsleil Waututh First Nations in the bid process.

One of the opportunities bidding for the 2010 Olympics brought to the province of British Columbia was to involve the Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueum and Tsleil Waututh First Nations in the bid process. The Games will take place on their traditional territory, and fortunately the leaders of these First Nations also saw the Olympics as an opportunity and participated. Despite the opposition some faced from within their communities.

When the Games arrive in February of 2010, you can be sure that First Nations will feature prominently in the opening ceremonies and in most media coverage of the Vancouver Olympics. It is a compelling story – one that should become more compelling in the next five years, not least because it should be that most loved of all media stories, a win-win.

The importance to all British Columbians, and Canadians, of resolution to First Nations claims cannot be underestimated. The uncertainty of the situation at present means every decision, or non-decision, regarding Crown land is called into question. This is not good for the province or for First Nations.

But the treaty process has been painfully slow. Despite more than a decade of negotiations, involving only about half of the First Nations in B.C., not one treaty has been finalized. In an effort to move the process along, the Campbell government has – after a pointless referendum early in its first term – tried to reach out to First Nations on a smaller scale than the massive, complex treaties. These efforts have included land, training programs, partnerships and cash, as was the case Monday when the premier was in Whistler to announce a second $3 million for the First Nations Cultural Centre to be built by the Squamish and Lil’wat.

Whistler, too, has made efforts to reach out to the Squamish and Lil’wat in recent years, helping facilitate development of the cultural centre, working to increase employment opportunities and supporting the First Nations’ plans for their future. With more than half their population under the age of 25, the future is very important to Squamish and Lil’wat leaders.

One of the carrots the province offered, to Whistler and to the Squamish and Lil’wat, for their involvement in the 2010 Olympics was 300 acres of Crown land. In Whistler’s case, that land must be used for resident-restricted housing and related facilities, which will be built next to the athletes village near the landfill. The province has not imposed those restrictions on the Squamish and Lil’wat lands.

Given the value of land in Whistler, it’s no surprise that the Squamish and Lil’wat are eying Crown land within municipal boundaries for some of their 300 acres. The first two pieces of property identified are the highways works yard across Highway 99 from Alta Vista and a site above the Rainbow lands and the proposed housing project there. Squamish and Lil’wat leaders have been deliberately vague in describing their plans for these lands, but it is believed they would like to build market housing.

To develop those lands will require rezoning from the municipality and that most-Whistler of things, bed units. The rezoning application for the highways works yard is currently working its way through municipal hall. The bed unit question will, presumably, be addressed at the same time. It may be that the bed units can be "found" but there is the possibility that the municipality will have to create additional bed units, thus putting Whistler further over its once-important development cap of 52,500 bed units. But we don’t really know whether we’re talking about 10 units or 1,000 units until the proposal becomes public, and that’s an issue.

Whistler has lots of plans, strategies and policies to help guide the shape and nature of this community. Whistler’s plans can be modified to accommodate the Squamish and Lil’wat’s plans for their lands, but we need to know what the First Nations’ plans are before we can make adjustments. Will the sewage treatment plant have the capacity? What will the impact be on traffic? What is the plan for bringing real estate on to the market? Who is going to build the project?

The Squamish and Lil’wat are not just another developer. We respect their needs, their goals and their desire to change. As Chief Gibby Jacob has said many times, the Squamish want to contribute to society, not be a burden. Their developments in Whistler will help them do that. But any development in Whistler is a partnership.

Whistlerites have previously been told by politicians that they couldn’t talk about an issue because they were in delicate negotiations. That answer didn’t go over very well. The Squamish and Lil’wat can prevent a repeat of that fiasco and further the partnership by sharing their plans with the community.