The British Columbia government has hired a former aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister to help solve a long-simmering feud on the Sunshine Coast over the proposed regulation of private moorage by the Sechelt Indian Band, which is asserting a claim to part of the foreshore in Pender Harbour.
The provincial government has signed a contract worth up to $25,000 with Barry Penner to consult with residents, the local regional district and the band about lifting a ban on new docks.
Some residents of Pender Harbour, a community of roughly 2,600 people about 80 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, have called for the 12-year ban to be lifted as soon as possible, but they object to the prospect of any new private moorage applications going through the Sechelt. The band is negotiating with the province for control of all of Pender Harbour's foreshore, the area below the high tide mark.
A draft plan released in the spring by the band and the provincial government would require anyone hoping to build a new dock or renovate or relocate an existing one in Pender Harbour to file an application with the Sechelt band as well as the provincial Ministry of Forestry, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The Sechelt say they would levy an annual administrative fee of about $500 for any new five-year dock tenures and would require a detailed archeological assessment of the foreshore near any dock.
The public comment period for the draft plan has already been extended twice.
"When change happens and people think it's going to impact the ability they have to enjoy what they've become used to, it's understandable that emotions run high," Mr. Penner, a former four-term Liberal MLA, said Monday.
"So I'm hoping that by engaging with people and hearing them out we can get to the heart of the matter and have a meaningful dialogue."
Mr. Penner said it is too soon to say whether the draft plan needs to be overhauled or just tweaked. He is expected to report back to the province by Oct. 31 with non-binding recommendations.
Local NDP MLA Nicholas Simons said Mr. Penner's appointment shows that the province recognizes that its process for consulting with the residents of Pender Harbour was "insufficient and lacking."
"The draft plan was essentially discussed between the Sechelt nation and the province and the draft was a result of those discussions," Mr. Simons said. "And a lot of people wondered why those discussions couldn't be conducted in a way that took into account some more of the locals' concerns."
Resident Bob Fielding, who says he has built about three-quarters of the 300-odd docks that dot the area, said the appointment of Mr. Penner was "positive news." He is one of many Pender Harbour residents who say they believe the Sechelt's plan could be used as a blueprint by other coastal First Nations to assert title over foreshore across British Columbia.
Sechelt Chief Calvin Craigan said Mr. Penner, who also served as an environment minister as well as attorney-general, should help bring more understanding of the plan to the Pender Harbour residents, who have been "requesting more accurate information." He said the appointment doesn't mean that the traditional consultation process undertaken by the province and the Sechelt has been a failure.
Residents are particularly angry that the proposed plan outlaws new docks in Gunboat Bay, which the Sechelt say is necessary to protect a salmon-bearing creek and shallow waters that once teemed with herring.
Mr. Craigan said he has heard rumblings that residents want to conduct their own environmental assessments, but warned that could mean adding more years to the moratorium on new moorage that would finally be lifted under a new plan. The original ban was first put in place to allay Sechelt concerns over the rampant development of an area that once drew thousands of its people each winter before the population was decimated by smallpox and relocated by the residential-school system in the mid-1800s.
"We're hoping that [a new dock-management plan is implemented] ASAP so that not only would there be certainty created for the community, but certainty created for my band membership," Mr. Craigan said.