Pender Harbour homeowners are ramping up their fight with the province and the Sechelt (shíshálh) First Nation over a plan that would see at least two dozen boat docks demolished and hundreds of others subject to environmental and archeological studies.
At least 16 locals have put up a minimum of $500 each to pay for the services of former MP John Weston, now a lawyer in private practice specializing in Aboriginal law.
“The plan leaves dock owners on the hook for studies we don’t see any need for and expensive new building practices,” said Leonard Lee, president of the Pender Harbour Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the fight. “They have prohibited docks in some areas for no reason that we can figure out.”
Most of the docks in the area are a combination of floats and ramps that are tethered to the beach, rather than built on pilings that disturb the foreshore.
“We see no reason to remove them, if they are properly constructed,” he said. “We just want to use our time-honoured rights to enjoy the land we own.”
The Chamber also launched a freedom of information request for documents and correspondence related to the Pender Harbour Dock Management Plan that Lee says was hatched “in secrecy” by the province and the shíshálh.
The province last sought public input in 2015 on the release of a draft of the plan and later hired former MLA Barry Penner to review the plan and make recommendations to fine tune it.
The shíshálh deal could be a blueprint for other First Nations that hope to assert control over their traditional territories around the province, said Lee.
“If the band succeeds, this is bound to happen in other parts of B.C.,” said Lee. “So, we want to know who asked for what and why they got it.”
The dock management plan divides the area into three zones, including one in which no new docks can be built and where at least 25 existing docks must be removed, according to the ministry of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development.
Around 320 people with existing docks in the other two zones are obligated to apply for new dock leases under the conditions of the management plan.
The agreement is part of a package of First Nations reconciliation agreements that give the shíshálh a role in forest management, revenue-sharing and title to several parcels of Crown land.
The shíshálh have a strong bond with the area, which includes a village site and dozens of known archeological features.
The band has been negotiating for more authority over Pender Harbour for at least 15 years. Their position was strengthened by a 2014 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that gave First Nations a stronger say over how their traditional territories are managed.
The plan is meant to address the need for environmental stewardship and protection of archeological sites in shíshálh traditional territories, Chief Warren Paull said earlier this year.
“Our ultimate goal is to restore the harbour to its historical ecological abundance,” he said. “Pender Harbour was an area where our people lived year-round. It was a bread basket of our territory and historically held an abundance of resources.”
Penner’s review notes that the shíshálh have asserted “aboriginal title rights to the whole of Pender Harbour … as part of our comprehensive claim to our traditional territory.”
The shíshálh maintain that they were forcibly removed from the area and relocated to Sechelt.
Penner also unearthed a 2011 letter from the provincial government to then-chief Garry Feschuk noting, “The province recognizes that the shíshálh Nation has a strong prima facie claim for aboriginal rights and title in Pender Harbour.”
An archeological survey conducted for the ministry in 2017 found that “any development in the project area has the potential to destructively impact archeological materials.”
Of 66 recorded archeological sites, 41 were already occupied by docks, marinas and other structures.
The study was released to the public in summary form only.
Rather than floating docks, Lee says that the government’s environmental study of Pender Harbour points to boat sewage, surface water runoff and septic field seepage as serious water quality issues.
The study also notes that propeller wash, wakes and fuel spills associated with small boats have an impact on water quality, citing research conducted by Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Lee contends that the environmental assessment is a short-cut, with little local input.
The most recent water-quality testing in Pender Harbour cited in the government study appears to be a fecal coliform count from 1991.
“(The residents) would like to see a complete environmental study done so we can improve the water quality here, but that hasn’t been done,” said Lee.