They called it an historic moment.
Several First Nation leaders, elders, councillors and band staff members met with the District of Kent in council chambers last Monday to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. The document includes signatures from Cheam, Scowlitz, Seabird and Sts’ailes First Nation bands, along with the Sto:lo Tribal Council and the District of Kent.
Mayor Lorne Fisher said it’s “a pretty major accomplishment for us to sit down with those four bands.”
It wasn’t very long ago that some of the bands weren’t even speaking to each other, he said.
Times have changed since then. The MOU was developed during a series of community to community forums held between all local bands, Kent and Harrison Hot Springs. But on Monday, the latter was missing from the signing table.
Harrison Mayor Ken Becotte told the Observer that the Village “hadn’t been party to the agenda beforehand.”
The Village of Harrison Hot Springs was a part of the discussions at the forums, the most previous of which was held on January 10. Harrison is even included in the draft of the MOU.
“It was very short notice for us,” Becotte said. “I wasn’t comfortable signing the agreement as council hadn’t had the chance to discuss or endorse it.”
Minutes show that Councillor Bob Perry was in attendance at the January 10 meeting, where the MOU was discussed and drafted.
There was one issue within the agreement that they wanted clarified, which hadn’t happened in time for Monday’s signing, Becotte said. He did not indicate what that issue was.
The lack of that voice at the table did not go unnoticed by those in attendance.
“It’s fair to say that we’re disappointed,” Tyrone McNeil vice-president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council said. “We’ve all been at the table with this for quite some time.”
But there is always room for more, he added. And in time, Harrison could be included in the memorandum.
“My understanding is that the issues (Harrison) has with the MOU wouldn’t take much to work out,” he said.
Becotte hopes that’s exactly what will happen.
“As soon as we’ve had the opportunity to discuss it further … I’m sure we’ll get back on the table,” he said.
While the overarching intent of the MOU is to be good neighbours, he said in reality the document has very sharp teeth. It will allow all six communities (if Harrison is to join in) to be one voice when dealing with federal government bodies.
This will be crucial in river management, McNeil said.
Government bodies, especially the DFO, seem to “play one of us off the other,” he said, stalling communications and making progress more difficult.
With all local governments meeting at the same table, they can work out their differences and face Ottawa as a solid team.
River management is probably the most pressing issue facing this area, McNeil said.
Flood risks could be lowered with proper gravel removal, such as was done up until the 1980s, he said.
“We need to come forward together on it,” he said.
With all six communities on board — the four local bands, the District and the Village — McNeil said that the MOU could be expanded to include more Sto:lo communities.
But the first order of business is “to lock up the four Sto:lo communities here, and Kent and Harrison,” he said.