About 150 people from Pender Harbour and Egmont packed into the Sechelt Indian Band's longhouse July 12 for an emotional debate over a moratorium on new foreshore leases in their area. The B.C. government imposed the moratorium while it negotiates a precedent-setting agreement with the Sechelt Indian Band over the process of granting foreshore leases.
For some people in the crowd, the issue was simply how to get permission to build a dock.
"Is the Sechelt Indian Band holding it up or the provincial government?" asked Patricia Rowe, who bought waterfront property in Pender last year. "Get your agreement and let's have a dock on our property."
Others were angry that the Sechelt Band is even involved in granting the leases.
"What authority should the Sechelt Indian Band have over foreshore leases in Area A?" asked Steven Adamson, who described the situation as "tyranny" and "taxation without representation." But for the Sechelts, many of whom wore traditional cedar hats and held a drumming circle before the meeting, the issue of private dock leases was secondary to the question of aboriginal title.
"We, as First Nations, are starting to exercise our aboriginal rights," said Lori Dixon. "I view [the moratorium on foreshore leases] as an inconvenience. All this foreshore is being eaten up by all this real estate."
The Sechelt Band has asserted aboriginal title to the foreshore throughout its traditional territory and demanded meaningful consultation from the provincial government on applications for leases and tenure. A landmark Supreme Court decision in 1997 said governments must provide that consultation. If aboriginal right has been infringed, the court said, the band must be compensated.
"We're not trying to stop any development within our territory," said Sechelt chief Garry Feschuk. "We're asking the government to address the legal responsibility they have Within the last little while 12 referrals have been passed by Land and Water that did not even address our interests. That has to stop."
The band's interests in the foreshore include the impact on sea life from the shade and pollution caused by docks and boat sheds, damage to archeological sites and foreshore access, which in many parts of Pender Harbour is blocked by a maze of wharves.
Feschuk said the Sechelt Band is negotiating an "overarching agreement" for its entire traditional territory, which includes all of the Sunshine Coast as well as Sechelt and Jervis inlets.
However, the issue has become particularly heated in Pender Harbour because the foreshore there is very important both to the Sechelts and to the present landowners. There are many private docks and wharves in Pender, with new applications coming in constantly from waterfront property owners.
"We are an amphibious community and have been so, continuously, since 1880," said John Rees, Sunshine Coast Regional District director for Pender Harbour. "Moorage, wharves, boat sheds are a very important part of our community."
But before the arrival of European settlers, the Pender area was one of the most heavily settled parts of the Sechelt territory, a centre for winter gatherings and potlatches. There are 56 identified archeological sites in Pender Harbour, and according to the Sechelt Indian Band's anthropologist John Pritchard "it would be more accurate to describe Pender Harbour as one big archeological site."
The Sechelt Band began asking detailed questions about lease applications referred to them by Land and Water B.C., the Crown Corporation responsible for issuing foreshore leases. LWBC was often unable to explain how docks were built or foreshore filled in, some time in the past, without permission from anyone. Now LWBC and the Sechelt Band are conducting an inventory of docks and foreshore leases in Pender, said Feschuk, to determine "how many are there illegally and how many are there legally."
Feschuk did not say what he intended to do with that information but did say the band did not intend to remove the illegal docks. Last year during these discussions with the band, LWBC's processing of foreshore applications slowed down. Finally this spring the Crown Corporation stopped accepting new lease applications for the Pender Harbour area until the foreshore study is complete. The expected completion date is November. That moratorium, which was not formally announced but was communicated in individual letters to people who applied for leases, sparked concerns and rumours in Pender. In response, Rees requested a meeting with the Sechelt Band and LWBC officials.
During the meeting Rees aimed his criticism at the LWBC bureaucrats, not the Sechelt Band. He argued there should have been public meetings involving everyone, not just the band, before LWBC made changes to the foreshore lease process.
"Land and Water B.C. tell me they have a fiduciary responsibility to consult with the band," said Rees. "Excuse me - who has fiduciary responsibility to the non-aboriginal population?"
Rees said the "lock-out" of foreshore applications this spring was particularly upsetting because it came on top of an "astronomical" increase in taxes for waterfront property.
"Land and Water B.C. have chosen to ignore our history and totally underestimated the effect on our community," said Rees.Feschuk also blamed the problem on LWBC.
"You're trying to put us in the hot seat," Feschuk told the two LWBC representatives at the meeting. "How many times have you cancelled meetings? I had to ask Harold Long for a meeting with the minister."
Feschuk and MLA Long planned to meet with George Abbott, Minister Responsible for Land and Water B.C., on July 16, to discuss the new process for foreshore lease applications.
"The native rights and title have to be adhered to We can't turn back the Supreme Court of Canada's decision," said Long. He attributed the concern in Pender Harbour to "misinformation."
But some people had more concerns at the end of the meeting than they had at the beginning as the discussion widened from the simple question of docks to the bigger issue of land claims.
"I put my life savings in a piece of waterfront property," said Rachel Dryden. "Is it possible I don't even own it?"
Pritchard, the band's anthropologist, replied that landowners are not in danger of losing their property. "It's the government's problem. It's not the landowner's problem," he said. "We're not going to evict three million people."