Locals express displeasure with land claims process

Treaty negotiation land offer maps previously described as ‘fake’ not so fake after all, property owners say

The lack of information being made public concerning local treaty and land claims has proved frustrating for some local residents, especially those whose property is near or adjoins areas in the proposed land package.

About 1,700 hectares of Crown land to the north, west and south of Cranbrook could become Ktunaxa Land if the Treaty is finalized. At a public meeting held last October, the lands in question were revealed to the public. The land offer was accepted conditionally by the Ktunaxa First Nation last year.

However, John Nesbitt, who owns property near a proposed area, expressed concerns with the process. “The whole problem is that they are not being open and transparent, that it’s being done behind closed doors,” Nesbitt said.

A recent column on the subject by MLA Bill Bennett in the Townsman summarized the status of treaty negotiations:

• The three governments (B.C., Canada and the Ktunaxa First Nation) have agreed tentatively on a 33,458 hectare package of land that represents less than one half per cent of the traditional territory once occupied by the Ktunaxa. No land has been transferred or will be any time soon.

• Approximately 22,000 hectares are located in three large rural blocks in the Goat, Flathead, and Madias-Tatley River watersheds. The remaining parcels are smaller and are distributed throughout the east and west Kootenays.

The public meeting held last fall outlined the proposed land package, but while the maps in question were shown to those in attendance, that information wasn’t made public beyond that.

However, in December, a map with hand-drawn outlines of the proposed areas was circulated anonymously to homes in the areas in question, and later appeared in a paid advertisement in the Townsman.

A news story in the Townsman in December quoted a representative of the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation denouncing these unofficial maps, saying they appeared to suggest that the lands, should they be handed over to the Ktunaxa, would be inaccessible to recreational users. Robin Platts, spokesperson for the Ministry, said that simply isn’t the case, but stressed that nothing is set in stone yet.

The headline for the Townsman referred to the maps as “fake.”

However,  Nesbitt said these maps, while unofficial, aren’t that fake. In fact, upon comparison with the “official” maps available at MLA Bill Bennett’s office, Nesbitt said, the unofficial maps are quite accurate.

Another property owner, Don Demarchi, told the Townsman that the maps that were circulating were, in fact, “relatively accurate.”

“Although what I’m hearing is that this is a long way down the road, and may not preclude recreational use, when something happens all of a sudden it’s right now,” Nesbitt said. “There are no guarantees that unfettered public use of the land will be available in the future if this goes through as is.

“This is what’s on the table — this is what’s being proposed. Do they plan on making it public after it’s set in stone?”

Nesbitt feels that property owners, or anyone that uses that land recreationally, should have potential input.

Chris Dewaard of Cranbrook, who uses the land near Jimsmith Lake recreationally, said the whole process was “undemocratic.”

“I do a lot of biking there, it’s beautiful there. Now everyone’s trying to convince me it’s off-limits,” he said.

Dewaard said there was a disconnect between the bureaucrats involved in the process and local residents.

“The civil servants in Victoria are selling issues that they are not aware of,” he said. “These people are out of touch with people like us, and what we’re thinking. We’re just an inconvenience.

“I see (the whole process) as non-democratic. I feel they’re shoving it down our throats.”

At the public meeting in October, Ktunaxa negotiator Garry Merkel explained that the Ktunaxa Lands will be categorized either as private, when they are being used for a purpose that is not compatible with recreational access, or public.

“Much of our lands will be public lands. The public will continue to have access to those lands,” said Merkel. “It’s highly unlikely that the wilderness areas will be private lands.”

Both MLA Bill Bennett (bill.bennett.mla@leg.bc.ca) and Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks (David.Wilks@parl.gc.ca) have indicated they are seeking public input on this matter.