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Douglas rejection could imperil road improvements

After 17 years of negotiations, and borrowing $15 million, continuation in treaty process will be put to referendum Jan. 30



A wayward participant in the In-SHUCK-ch treaty process could lose out on improvements to an important access road if it opts to leave negotiations.

The Douglas First Nation, which is split into two communities known as Port Douglas and Tipella, is holding a referendum on Jan. 30 to decide whether it wants to continue with negotiations towards a treaty. It has been a participant in treaty negotiations since they began in 1993.

Douglas Chief Don Harris has previously said the referendum is being held to ensure that a treaty is in the "best interests" of the people but he didn't return a request for comment on this story. His voicemail was full when Pique last contacted him.

In-SHUCK-ch Negotiator Gerard Peters said in an interview that there will be no incentive for him to lobby the Province of B.C. to make improvements to the Harrison West Forest Service Road, which spans the length of Harrison Lake and is Douglas's only road connection to the Lower Mainland.

"Assuming that Douglas withdraws, I'm not sure what the motivations might be to lobby British Columbia to improve the Harrison West Road," Peters said.

The road up to the Douglas communities doesn't allow access to anything but four-by-four vehicles, according to an engineer with Lakeside Pacific Forest Products Ltd., which is doing some rock blasting and dangerous-tree removal on a 65-kilometre stretch of the road. The road is maintained in the summer months and then deactivated on a seasonal basis.

Improvements to the road would come as one of numerous "side agreements" that Peters is negotiating alongside the treaty itself. Representatives with the Ministry of Forests and Range will visit the In-SHUCK-ch General Assembly on Jan. 23 with a view to discussing road improvements.

Peters said the cost of improving the road could be about $12 million and he expects to discuss funding for improvements with the provincial government very soon - but without Douglas's continuing participation in treaty he just doesn't see the need.

Peters also has concerns about the impact a rejection by Douglas could have on the treaty process. There's a possibility that the In-SHUCK-ch might have to start negotiations all over again.

"If Douglas decides to leave, a couple of things occur," Peters said. "One, the Samahquam and Skatin need to consider what they're going to do in the circumstance, and they haven't done that yet.

"Assuming Douglas withdraws, I wish to engage Samahquam and Skatin in consideration for whether or not they wish to proceed independent of Douglas's involvement."

Lizette Peters, a former Chief of the Douglas First Nation and an opponent of the In-SHUCK-ch treaty, said in a Wednesday interview that members are concerned about treaty because they don't feel they understand it. She has her own concerns that the participating First Nations have had to take out government loans in order to be part of negotiations at all.

"There's a lot of members... that still don't know what's happening," she said. "They still don't feel like they can interpret what's said, they don't know what's going to be in the final agreement, so the difficult thing right now is that In-SHUCK-ch is asking the membership to sign an enrolment and eligibility form, but it's all so confusing.

"The fact of the matter is we haven't had any money, this is borrowed money they've been utilizing through the federal government."

Peters added it's possible that Skatin and Samahquam could continue on their own as the only remaining communities in the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, though that's not the result he prefers.

"That's a possibility, I don't think it would be an easy one for a variety of reasons," he said. "But given my understanding of the B.C. Treaty Commission and its policies and the reasons it was set up, it is possible."

Outside his concerns about the road, Peters said the Douglas First Nation could be on the hook for a lot of money in loan obligations if it decides to withdraw from the treaty process. The In-SHUCK-ch communities have had to borrow about $15 million from the federal government in order to participate in the treaty process.

The loan obligations, he said, are between Douglas and Canada, Samahquam and Canada, and Skatin and Canada. The federal government, he said, will eventually want to recover those debts - and Douglas could be on the hook for that money because it has a funding stream that the other bands don't share.

"There's a distinct possibility, if Douglas withdraws, that it'll inflict real hardship on the other communities and I think that Douglas needs to be aware of that when they go to cast their ballots," he said.