Residents of Fauquier were told last week not to fear a reserve on the edge of their community.
“We’re not going to build casinos, we’re not going to build a hotel,” said Westbank First Nation Chief Roxanne Lindley. “Anything and everything done on that property will be for bringing our children up, bringing our youth up, and bringing our elders out to connect to the land.”
About 120 people showed up for the meeting at the Fauquier community hall on Oct. 4 to learn more about the Westbank First Nations’ plans. The Kelowna-based first nation owns a 4.6-acre (1.9 hectares) plot of land on the shores of Arrow Lake, just north of town. It received the land as part of a land-swap that allowed highway development through Westbank’s land in West Kelowna.
It plans to make the Fauquier property an official reserve.
“WFN has created a small, 10-plot campground on the Starlite Road property for use by WFN members to come and enjoy the local area, and it is not open to the general public, ” said Raf De Guevara, the head of Intergovernmental Affairs and Title and Rights in a presentation that opened the meeting.
De Guevara gave a history of the Westbank First Nation, described its ongoing development projects in the Kelowna area, the background to the land exchange that prompted the Fauquier reserve plan, and the band’s history of intergovernmental relations.
The First Nation of 800 people has a history of working with neighbouring governments to foster good relations and for mutual benefit, De Guevara said. The First Nation and local governments enter into Memorandums of Understanding to manage everything from the waste pickup and emergency services to planning.
“There’s no plans for development. But if there ever would be, if we were ever to do something, the MOU would be the vehicle we would use,” said De Guevara. “We would meet on an annual basis and discuss how things are going, plans for anything, both ways, not just on the Westbank side.”
“We would look to partner here with local residents on restoration projects, environmental projects, and work in partnership. That’s what we would continue to do. “
The property in Fauquier would be used for camping, cultural activities, and to give members access to fishing and hunting in the area. De Guevara told the crowd WFN members have used the area for millennia.
WFN councillor Chris Derickson told the crowd the First Nation is not some unknowable organization that is out to take over Fauquier.
“When I got up this morning to come here, I put my pants on one leg at a time,” he joked. “We’re just people. My point is, we’re just a community, that was asked to come and share who we were, what we want to do.
“When we work with the local governments back home there’s no secrets between us… all we want to do is buy some land for our community so we have another place for our members to recreate.”
Rather than fearing that the band would develop the property in ways that would hurt the community, Chief Lindley told residents that having a reserve in the area can be of mutual benefit. She noted that after buying land near Cherryville, they were able to help that community fight to protect the local environment.
“We didn’t change Cherryville, we enhanced it, we became part of the Cherryville community. We don’t go in there telling them what to do. We work with them to protect the water because water is life. So let us work together and be part of that journey to protect what we are supposed to.”
“What I would like each one of you to consider is the value that we bring,” said Lindley.
While the Westbank presentation reassured most of the crowd, one group in the audience was angered by what they heard. Members of the Sinixt Nation, or Arrow Lakes People, had travelled to the meeting to reaffirm their rights to the territory. The Sinixt were formally declared extinct as a band by the Canadian government in the 1950s. Many people still identify as Sinixt, though they live within other U.S.-based tribal groups.
Recent Canadian court cases have opened the door to Sinixt people reasserting claims in the Arrow Lakes area. They objected to the Westbank FN creating a reserve in territory they want to be recognized as their own.
“What is painful here is not the four acres, it’s the thought that we don’t exist,” said Shelly Boyd, a Colville Tribal member who claims Sinixt heritage. “I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but I just want to point out the fact this is hurtful, this conversation is painful in a way to me as an individual.”
But Westbank officials said their reserve on the Arrow Lakes did nothing to affect Sinixt aspirations.
“I understand the pain, I am a direct descendant of the Sinixt people …,” said Derickson. “We’re not going to figure out all that tonight. We are just here to present who we are as a community, not solve an issue that this forum is not established for.
“I want to make something clear… our establishing a reserve here does not negate or derogate from any land claim any other nation may have on this territory,” he added. “It just means we want to use the land here to recreate, to hunt, to fish, what we already do… this does not take away any Sinixt claim or future claim they may have. That’s not how land claims work.”
Several residents spoke up in support of the Westbank band’s plans.
“I’ve had lots of dealings, lots of discussions with Raf and staff, and they have good hearts, and good intentions, and I welcome them here,” said Kevin Schiller, to a round of applause from the crowd.
“In the last two years, I’ve had no issues, they’ve been fine neighbours and I’m not concerned at all,” said David Wheatley, who owns the property next to the Westbank land. “I have no problem with it and I hope no one else does either.”
The information meeting was called by the Regional District of the Central Kootenay, the local government in the area. Area director Paul Peterson voted against the proposed reserve when it came to the RDCK board. He said he opposed reserve status because the community needed more consultation. He said he was somewhat comforted by what he heard.
“I have more of an open mind now,” he says. “When you hear facts you can make a better decision, when you have no consultation you think the worst.
“I don’t apologize for that, my job is to look out for the area and that’s what I was trying to do.”
Peterson wouldn’t say if he would change his vote to support the reserve status.
“I don’t know that, I have to do some thinking about that,” he said. “I am a bit stubborn. I feel some alliance with the Sinixt.”
The transfer is a matter between the Westbank First Nation, province, and the federal government. The WBFN hopes to have the land transferred to reserve status by the spring.