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Gabriel George, back left, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, welcomes paddlers in a traditional canoe before a ceremony officially announcing the new park name of temtemixwten / Belcarra Regional Park, in Belcarra, B.C., on Oct. 8, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Two Vancouver-area First Nations have declined to sign a letter of unconditional support for Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim’s quest to dismantle the city’s elected park board.

Instead, both Indigenous groups, the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations, have said they want a formal role in reviewing any changes to the Vancouver Charter, the provincial statute that regulates the city, including the park board. The Tsleil-Waututh have written to the city to say specifically that they are looking forward to discussions that will “maintain and enhance” their nation’s role in city parks.

Indigenous-law experts say this could lead to the city’s First Nations gaining the ability to participate in decisions on a wide range of park issues, including fees and event permits – or even co-managing parks.

“We want to be part of the decision-making, be a part of the changes to the charter,” Tsleil-Waututh Chief Jen Thomas said in an interview.

Mr. Sim said last month that he wants to abolish the 135-year-old Vancouver Park Board and do away with the positions of its seven elected commissioners – a move that would require the provincial government to amend the city charter. In December, Vancouver’s city council voted in favour of asking the province to do so, and Mr. Sim appointed a working group last week to make the change happen. He has said the board is a “broken” system that acts as a barrier to effectively managing parks.

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But soon after the city council vote, British Columbia Premier David Eby told a news conference that “significant First Nations engagement” would be required before the provincial government would support the change.

The Vancouver area includes the traditional territories of three First Nations: the Tsleil-Waututh, the Squamish and the Musqueam. Only the Musqueam have signed Mr. Sim’s letter of support, a form letter the mayor’s office sent to the three nations.

Squamish council chairperson Khelsilem, who uses only one name, said discussions between his nation and the city are at a very preliminary stage. He said his nation is exploring how the Vancouver Charter could be amended to establish a First Nations role in parks that reflects the intentions of the province’s 2019 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

He said co-management of one or more city assets is not outside the realm of possibility. “It’s not super-radical. The province is doing it already,” he added.

The provincial government has been quietly preparing legislation to allow Indigenous groups to share in decisions related to public land in B.C.

Until now, while there has been much talk about this kind of co-management, only one agreement has been struck in B.C. to give an Indigenous nation a say in provincial land decisions: a deal with the Tahltan Nation over the Eskay mine in the province’s northwest.

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Two Vancouver Island municipalities have negotiated agreements with local First Nations, one on management of the local water supply, and the other an agreement to co-operate on a wide range of municipal planning issues.

The Tsleil-Waututh already co-manage three parks with local municipalities in their traditional territory, north of Vancouver.

Mae Price, a lawyer with Vancouver-based JFK Law, which specializes in Indigenous law, said the public sometimes reacts fearfully to these kinds of proposals because they think that “Indigenous communities will come in, take control, and say no to everything.”

But, she said, those fears are usually unfounded.

“Usually, they are looking for meaningful involvement. It could be an advisory body that would provide input. Or decision-making could be passed to them” for some specific issues.

University of British Columbia law professor Alexandra Flynn said the requests from the Squamish and Tseil-Waututh in Vancouver are in line with a new process the province has been trying to foster in its effort at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“The aspiration is, ‘Let’s really talk seriously about what it means to oversee or govern these spaces,” Ms. Flynn said.

She noted that the nations don’t need to limit themselves. “They should ask for way more. This is unceded land. This is a site of violent dispossession,” she said.

Ms. Flynn added she was surprised to hear that the mayor’s office had sent out nothing more than a form letter asking for signatures. This, she said, is an older style of consultation that cities and provinces used to feel was adequate. “The mayor didn’t absorb what that relationship really means,” she said.

Mr. Sim’s chief of staff, Trevor Ford, said city officials are talking to the councils at the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations, sometimes with formal presentations, because they, unlike the Musqueam, asked for that process.

Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow signed and sent back the form letter from the mayor’s office soon after Vancouver’s city council voted on eliminating the park board.

The letter said, “Musqueam fully supports Vancouver City Council’s proposal to eliminate the elected Vancouver Park Board to enable city council authority over all parks and recreation services in Vancouver.”

Legal experts say any changes would likely not address the possibility of First Nations gaining the right to acquire and develop land in the city, since issues of land ownership and development are already being dealt with through individual negotiations with the city and province.

B.C.’s practice in recent years has been to talk to First Nations about ownership possibilities whenever a level of government is abandoning activities that used to take place on a piece of public land.

That’s how the consortium of First Nations called MST Development Corporation acquired Vancouver’s Jericho Lands, the Heather Lands in central Vancouver, and the Broadway Liquor Distribution site on East Broadway.

Through a different process several years ago, Vancouver organized a swap involving city land with the Musqueam, intended to protect an Indigenous burial ground in the Marpole neighbourhood of south Vancouver.

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