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K'omoks band councillor Stewart Hardy on Goose Spit in Comox, B.C. on July 6, 2010. The spit, which is used by the Navy and the sea cadets, is also claimed by the local native band.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The battle of Goose Spit began more than a century ago, when the brass of the Imperial Navy decided this little finger of land on Vancouver Island would make a splendid location for a firing range.

That the site was an Indian Reserve to protect the burial grounds of the K'omoks people didn't get in the way of those plans. And once the military arrived, it never left. Today, the K'omoks are close to a treaty settlement, but are holding out for a pact with their neighbours to share this contested ground.

On a glorious summer day this week, sunbathers and families flocked to the spit to enjoy its sandy beaches lining the sparkling waters of Comox Harbour. There is nothing left of the ancient graveyard. The naval operations which began in 1896 have essentially severed the band's ties to its land.

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The 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion practiced manoeuvres here, destined for First World War campaigns at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Somme. Their canvas tents have given way to more permanent structures, including a glass-sheathed mess hall with a million-dollar view.

The K'omoks still hold title to a portion of the spit known as Comox Indian Reserve No. 3, or IR3. The bones of their people have been returned - unceremoniously handed over in cardboard boxes and reinterred on another K'omoks reserve.

This week, treaty negotiators were fine-tuning the wording of a potential land-claims settlement. The last major hurdle is access to this reserve and ownership of the unused, westernmost tip of Goose Spit. The B.C. government, eager for a deal with the K'omoks, has intervened, urging Ottawa to find a way to accommodate the band.

Prior to European contact, the aboriginal people here described this fertile valley as the land of plenty; their large fishing weirs are still being uncovered in the nearby estuary. But the reserve lands on Goose Spit offer a different kind of sustenance - their real-estate potential is significant. Without access, however, the K'omoks have few options. They propose to build a road adjacent to the military base to reach the western end of the spit.

The pie-shaped reserve is cut off by HMCS Quadra, a low-security Department of National Defence outpost that serves mostly as a summer training camp for sea cadets.

The federal and provincial governments have offered what the small band considers a generous cash and land settlement. But the access issue "is the deal-breaker for the community," said Melissa Quocksister, a K'omoks treaty negotiator.

She is 27 years old and brings her generation's networking skills to the table. When she learned that a tentative access pact had fallen apart, she reached out to band members through e-mail and Facebook to look for direction.

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"Everybody said, 'No Spit, no deal.' "

Ms. Quocksister agreed to bring a reporter and photographer to the reserve this week in the company of a K'omoks elder, Stewart Hardy. Mr. Hardy has been a band council member for 48 years, and his presence was expected to ensure smooth passage across the DND property.

"Every time we go down there, it's like going across the U.S. border," he explained earlier. "The biggest issue is they treat us like little people. But they treat the elders pretty good - they let us drive down."

A commissionaire from the base stopped his vehicle at the entrance to the spit. Mr. Hardy dutifully produced his Indian Status card. But the guard balked at his guests. "Are you a reporter?" he asked one.

Instead of being waved through, Mr. Hardy was asked to park and wait for a military escort from a nearby base. The party opted for a 20-minute hike along the shore, skirting the unfenced DND property. The base property is marked with "Danger" signs, but the public freely uses the beach.

The only sign of life on the reserve was a startled deer that disappeared into a copse of wild cherry trees. The DND side, which has served as a target range for decades, is wide open. "There were trees all along here when I was a kid," Mr. Hardy recalled. There was also, once, a K'omoks village, which offered a sheltered winter harbour for cedar dugout canoes.

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Mr. Hardy is practical and business-minded about the future, however. Holding a copy of an 1899 military map of the spit, he sketched out a proposal for a resort and marina that could provide steady income for the 275 band members.

Ms. Quocksister is more cautious about development, but observed that band elders see the potential now, for the first time, of a better life for their grandchildren. "They want us to succeed," she said. "We should be the richest people in the valley."

Part of what stands in their way is a B.C. cabinet order, signed during the Second World War, that granted DND control of Goose Spit, except the reserve, "for so long as required."

Captain Alexandre Cadieux, a spokesman for 19 Wing Comox, sees nothing temporary about the base. "It belongs to us," he said in an interview.

Capt. Cadieux offered a tour of HMCS Quadra shortly after Mr. Hardy's encounter with the commissionaire. On this day, there was little activity except down at the dock, where preparations were underway for the imminent arrival of the sea cadets.

Young men and women in uniform smartly hauled camping bags down a gangway. The atmosphere is part military, part kids' camp. The facility is also sometimes used for search and rescue sea survival training for air force crew.

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Capt. Cadieux said the band members could have easily accessed their reserve, if they would abide by DND's rules.

"We don't control access to IR3, we control access to DND property," he explained.

He said the "common-sense" rules are laid out in a 2008 letter to the band from 19 Wing Comox. "For the safety of all members of the K'omoks Band and to maintain the required level of security," it states that access to the reserve by band members will only be allowed from sunrise to sunset, on foot, except the elderly or infirm who can use the road if they ask for permission first.

The band has rejected those terms, but it appears the only resolution now rests with Ottawa.

George Abbott, B.C.'s Minister of Aboriginal Relations, sees a treaty within reach if DND would show some flexibility. He's written to his federal counterparts, urging them to find a way to accommodate the K'omoks.

"From the start of our treaty discussions, the K'omoks have identified Goose Spit as the most special place in their traditional territory," he said. "Better access remains an important deal-maker for them."

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This fall, the band could be voting to approve an agreement in principle. In a province where land claims are mostly stalled, it would be a welcome development.

"We are so close to another treaty for British Columbia and Canada," he said. "We are pushing for a creative solution."

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