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Snuneymuxw will sue over water

Chief claims Nanaimo mayor broke a promise and wants his band’s rights respected

Tamara Cunningham, Daily News

Water dispute heats up in Nanaimo.

The Snuneymuxw First Nation will launch court action against the City of Nanaimo after Mayor John Ruttan announced the band would have no veto power over a new water-sharing agreement.

Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White voiced concerns in early February that Harmac, owned by Nanaimo Forest Products, and the city would sign a water-sharing agreement without the consent or involvement of the band. He claims Harmac has been infringing on the First Nation’s water rights on Nanaimo River for years.

White was assured by Mayor John Ruttan during a press conference on Feb. 6 that no deal would be struck without the band’s approval. On Monday, Ruttan wrote in a letter that the Snuneymuxw would be consulted in good faith, but council was not prepared to give them a “veto on such a critical decision.”

White calls the “about-face” disturbing and upsetting and says it adds to a long history of broken promises to the Snuneymuxw.

In a prepared statement, White says there is no way the city will proceed with an agreement without them. White wants the band’s treaty rights respected, including access to the river for water and fish and now plans to launch legal action for financial compensation.

“The mayor recognized the implications of Snuneymuxw’s treaty-protected interests in water and made a commitment that we thought we could rely on,” White said. “They have now broken their word . . . if that is the path we are on then we will simply hash it out with them in court.”

The focus of the court action will be against NFP and the province and will challenge the lawfulness of the existing water licences that NFP is discussing with the city. White says the licences were issued by B.C. in violation of the Douglas Treaty of 1854, causing massive damage to the Snuneymuxw’s use of the Nanaimo River.

The city’s “broken promise” will also be highlighted as evidence of improper conduct on the agreement issue, the statement reads.

Ruttan is disappointed the band will proceed with court action, but says it is ultimately the chief’s decision.

He sent the letter to White on Monday to inform him discussions about a water-sharing deal were beginning with NFP . He added he was not authorized by city council to make a prior commitment to the Snuneymuxw about gaining their consent for a deal and apologized for any false hopes. The city will work with the band, but will ultimately move ahead with the project if its in the community’s best interest.

Ruttan said negotiations about water supply have been ongoing with the Nanaimo band for two years and although there’s been some co-operation from the chief, “when it comes down to what he actually wants from the city he has been unable to provide us with any information.”

Ruttan says there’s concern about further delays because a solution is urgent. The local water supply is expected to run out when the population exceeds 100,000 in 2020.

“If we don’t have the infrastructure in place (in eight years), this whole community will suffer,” Ruttan said.

“We need to act prudently and in advance and make the necessary decisions now than too late.”

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