Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew

Satellite aboriginal reserves a ‘huge concern’

Minister Rustad says B.C. supports federal reform, urges caution on behalf of cities

The province is asking the federal government to tread cautiously with its proposal to let First Nations set up satellite reserves within cities that may circumvent local planning and taxes.

Critics fear the outcome could be unregulated pockets of land in the midst of cities that are no longer subject to zoning or other civic rules and don’t contribute to municipal or regional taxes.

B.C. aboriginal relations minister John Rustad said Monday the proposed changes to the federal additions-to-reserve policy are important to fostering economic development by aboriginal bands, but added the province has heard concerns of cities and has asked the federal government to take them into account.

“We want to see First Nations pursuing their own economic, community and social objectives,” Rustad said. “We don’t want to see anything that is going to hurt the opportunities that we have for First Nations to be able to pursue that. But at the same time we also want to make sure that local governments are not adversely affected.”

The additions-to-reserve policy has existed since 1972, letting aboriginal bands acquire property and add it to their reserve, usually to accommodate population growth.

But it was a slow and cumbersome process and newly created reserve land had to be roughly contiguous to an existing reserve.

That requirement is gone from the draft policy, which opens the potential for any band in B.C. to buy distant land for economic development – possibly in urban areas of the Lower Mainland – and transform it into reserve land where normal limits on development don’t apply.

Rustad said he doesn’t see the satellite reserve scenario as a big issue, adding the positioning of some aboriginal communities and cities mean it’s unavoidable that some new reserve land won’t be contiguous.

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, vice-chair of Metro Vancouver’s aboriginal relations committee, isn’t comforted.

“There’s huge questions, huge concerns,” Drew said. “It would create the proverbial patchwork quilt where any sense of coordinated land use and planning goes out the window.”

New reserve land wouldn’t be subject to rules protecting farmland, so First Nations could in theory buy up land in the Agricultural Land Reserve, convert it to reserve land and build anything they want.

“All of a sudden the box is open,” Drew said.

Such a scenario could be so profitable, he added, that First Nations might not need their own money to buy the land and start construction, but merely a development company partner with financing and expertise.

A report outlining Metro concerns with the policy goes before the board on Friday.

It also stresses the potential risk to the ALR, noting 9,400 hectares of farmland in Delta – more than half of the entire municipality – is in the farmland reserve.

“It is imperative that this land use concern be raised with the federal government,” the report says.

Cities fear they will lose parts of their tax base – forcing tax rates up on other property owners – and that they may be unable to recover the full costs of utilities and other local public services from aboriginal reserve land.

Nor is there any mechanism for the regional district to collect regional sewage fees and development charges or for TransLink to collect its property tax on reserve.

“It just leaves it wide open,” Drew said. “It all has potential to cost taxpayers money adjacent to these instant satellite reserves.”

Drew said a band that plans to build a highrise in an area that’s not serviced to accommodate it would create huge problems for the local government.

Metro Vancouver has also warned, in a letter to Ottawa, that the regional district and member cities may be barred from servicing land added to reserves if First Nations’ development plans go against the regional growth strategy, which aims to contain urban growth.

Refusing utility servicing would be cities only way of blocking an inappropriate aboriginal development, Drew said.

“It puts municipalities in the very awkward position of having to be the bad guy.”

The federal government says it’s acting on First Nations’ calls to streamline and accelerate the additions-to-reserve process to foster aboriginal economic development and is allowing extra time for public input.

“Additional reserve lands such as urban reserves can bring economic benefits to surrounding areas and municipalities,” said federal aboriginal affairs department spokesperson Erica Meekes.

B.C. Business Council executive vice-president Jock Finlayson said the reform may give First Nations less incentive to sign treaties, but added the council generally supports more flexible use of reserve land for economic development and job creation.

“The treaty process has not created a tremendous amount of treaties,” he said. “It’s clear we need other tools in the toolkit.”

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