Seven years after the regional district opened talks with area First Nations on a written agreement to consummate their relationship, local politicians have finally agreed to move forward with it.
The protocol agreement had been collecting dust prior to a March 14 meeting between the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen and the Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
At that meeting, the First Nations pressed the local government to finally adopt the agreement, and RDOS board chair Dan Ashton pledged afterwards to “address” the issue within 60 days.
On Thursday, the RDOS board unanimously passed a motion to “proceed to enter” into the agreement. Ashton is unsure when the deal will actually be signed, but said he had “absolutely” fulfilled his commitment to address the matter.
Ashton noted the three bands actually signed the deal in 2008, but a formal ceremony involving all the parties will scheduled “as soon as possible” to officially get the RDOS on board. The Upper Similkameen Indian Band will also be asked to join.
PIB Chief Jonathan Kruger said he was “really happy” the RDOS had moved on the agreement.
“I think it’s really important to have a good working relationship with all of our communities. We’re all here to stay and we have to live together and work together and play together,” he said.
“It’s a good time to move forward together.”
Kruger said the protocol will formalize communication channels, allow for better co-operation on regional issues, and open up the possibility of joint grant proposals. It will also ensure the parties’ relationship is maintained when the current crop of leaders moves on.
RDOS chief administrative officer Bill Newell told the board Thursday that staff began working on the protocol in 2006 when the board of the day made it a priority to improve relations with First Nations neighbours. In 2007, the bands were sent the agreement, which they signed and returned to the RDOS for its approval shortly before the November 2008 municipal election.
Newell said the board put off the issue until after the election because the protocol contained language that made some member municipalities’ lawyers nervous. It then fell by the wayside until the First Nations pressed the matter last month.
The contentions language states the RDOS “recognizes” the bands have “distinctive constitutional rights” to land title “that flow from their prior and organized occupation of their territory.” Newell said because aboriginal title and rights are a federal issue, lawyers lawyer told the RDOS such language does not belong in a local government agreement.
The lawyers “didn’t say there was a danger, they just said it’s not your issue,” he explained.
Newell added he’s of the opinion that “culturally, in this region… there’s much more of a benefit for us to be working together with our First Nations than there is any danger.”
John Vassilaki, a Penticton city councillor and RDOS director, said he was concerned the protocol could be used to support a First Nations land claim within city limits.
“We’re saying yes to their right that they own all those lands and they can claim them,” Vassilaki said.
Newell, however, said the courts have established that only Crown property is in play for land claim settlements.
“I’ll guarantee you, there is no concern for the City of Penticton about lands that you own,” Newell said.
The protocol is opened-ended, but contains a clause that allows it to be terminated on 60 days’ notice from any party. It also commits the groups to meet semi-annually, establish a joint council that would meet twice a year, and consider adding a First Nations seat at the RDOS board table.