Park plan resurfaces
A long-awaited feasibility study recommends local First Nations enter into negotiations with the federal government to establish a national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen.
The $400,000 study, released Tuesday by the eight-member Okanagan Nation Alliance, concludes the park has the “potential to provide benefits” to its people and their culture without jeopardizing future claims to land title and rights. It also notes, however, that the park will remain stalled unless the B.C. government reverses its decision to withdraw from the process.
“There has been a lot of hard work that has gone into this feasibility study and I think the province should at least have the common decency to sit down with the Okanagan nations and discuss the contents, the findings and the recommendations contained in this report,” said ONA member Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake remained non-committal in a statement issued Tuesday.
“I thank the Okanagan Nation Alliance for sharing their study with us and am interested in what they want to say, but will need time to review it,” Lake said.
His government in 2011 walked away from the park planning process, citing a lack of public support, and Parks Canada then shut down its own work on the project.
The new study contains six key recommendations for ONA chiefs, one of which is developing a strategy to renew the province’s interest in the park by sending a letter to the premier and her cabinet that outlines the results of the feasibility assessment and the government’s “expected re-engagement” in future discussions.
A working group of the ONA prepared the study, which is meant to help chiefs on its executive council decide if they wish to move forward with park planning. The working group staged meetings and workshops to gather input from members.
“Our communities, our elders, our traditional land users, our hunters have attended these meetings and have offered their world view and their concerns and that’s what comprises this report,” Phillip said.
“The question really was: Do we just simply stop here or do we continue on with the discussion and dialogue? The direction that was given is that we must continue on. I believe at the end of the day we will be able to come to an agreement.”
Protection of aboriginal land title and rights, termed an “unresolved issue,” was cited as the most important topic considered by the working group, which obtained two legal opinions to alleviate its concerns.
The study suggests negotiations with Parks Canada will take two to five years and should result in a framework that provides for “co-operative management and decision-making” on the park matters.
“If we can move forward with negotiations we feel a lot of the issues we are dealing with can be negotiated in fairly short order, so five years is not an unreasonable timeframe,” said consultant Gwen Bridge, who chaired the working group
Other proposed caveats include allowances for ONA members to have continued access to the park for cultural purposes, such as spiritual retreats and hunting, and “employment and procurement opportunities in future operation and management” of the park.
The study further suggests that the 284-square-kilometre park area proposed by Parks Canada be expanded to include land around White Lake and McIntyre Bluffs.
Bridge said that’s just a “starting point” for further negotiations because “Okanagan people feel to meet their obligations and responsibilities to their plants and animals they need to have a larger area because the animals roam and plants move and expand.”
Parks Canada paid $200,000 each to both the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Lower Similkameen Indian Band to conduct the study, according to contribution agreements obtained by the Western News through an access to information request.
The agreements, which were signed in August 2011, specified the final discussion paper be completed by June 2012. Both agreements were amended in April 2012 to push back the due date to December 2012.