Be careful providing water and roads to First Nations developments, warns Lower Mainland treaty advisory committee

District of Maple Ridge negotiating with Kwantlen band

Maple Ridge council heard some blunt advice Monday before it signs a deal with Kwantlen First Nation to provide services such as water or sewer for a new mall on Lougheed Highway: keep it strictly business.

Your main responsibility is the municipal taxpayer, said Ralph Drew, chair of the Lower Mainland treaty advisory committee.

Negotiating an agreement will burn through thousands of dollars in staff time, he added.

“First and foremost, there is no obligation to provide service.

“There is no requirement, legal or otherwise. It’s important to keep that in mind.”

Drew spoke to council Monday as council prepares to negotiate an agreement to provide services to the new mall.

Last year, Kwantlen First Nation said it wants to build a mall with two big-box stores, up to 450 homes and an eco-recreation area along the Fraser River.

The mall would have two big-box locations, one 96,000 square feet (9,000 sq. metres) and the other 87,000 sq. feet (8,100 sq. metres), plus four or five smaller stores beside them on the south side of the highway, currently the location of a soil fill site.

And trying to address social concerns in such agreements isn’t the way to go because those are the responsibilities of senior governments, Drew said.

Instead, the district has to ensure full cost recovery for providing any services, such as water or sewer, or parks or roads. Even the long-term costs of extending infrastructure to reserve lands has to be considered, otherwise local taxpayers will be holding the bill.

One of the problems is that First Nations bands are not self-governing entities and are still under federal jurisdiction.

That makes it difficult to make lasting guarantees when signing agreements. As a result, any agreement has to have easy ways to exit agreements or there has to be penalties built in if agreements break down. Municipal inspectors or bylaw officers have no authority on reserves, he pointed out.

“Trying to deal with monitoring and enforcement on reserves is a huge challenge. If the legal rubber hits the road, you don’t have the power in your hands that you would if you were in your own municipality.”

After hearing the presentation, Coun. Cheryl Ashlie asked why bother providing the services?

“If there’s no benefit to the citizens of Maple Ridge, to such an onerous and expensive agreement, why would we do it?” She questioned why council would agree to saying it agreed with the principles for negotiating service agreements.

“I worry that we’re giving the acknowledgement to First Nations that we are really sound with this,” when they need more information.

But chief administrator Jim Rule said council can later agree or not with a deal and added that Kwantlen can develop its own services without contracting with Maple Ridge.

He added that Maple Ridge has an excellent relationship with Kwantlen and is approaching its discussions with the band as a good neighbour wanting to help them realize their aspirations.

The municipality is also looking at the talks from a business point of view, “but we have to start somewhere.”