Ben Isitt resigns position on CRD Indigenous committee after Pacheedaht raise concerns

Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt has resigned as vice-chair of the Capital Regional District’s Indigenous relations committee after the Pacheedaht First Nation said his “deeply offensive” behaviour showed that the nation cannot trust the CRD.

In an email sent to CRD directors Wednesday, Isitt said he was resigning after reflecting on concerns raised by Pacheedaht Chief Councillor Jeff Jones in a letter provided to the CRD board Monday.

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Isitt said in an interview his resignation is a signal to Jones that he respects the chief and is taking his concerns seriously.

“I think that stepping aside hopefully provides an opportunity to rebuild that relationship with him,” he said.

Isitt’s resignation as vice-chair is effective immediately. He will no longer hold a leadership role on the committee, such as chairing meetings when chairwoman Maja Tait is absent and helping to manage the committee agenda.

Isitt will remain a director on the committee.

Jones wrote to the board in response to an online video that shows Isitt arguing with RCMP officers and a tow-truck driver about whether it was legal to remove vehicles from an area near Port Renfrew where people are protesting old-growth logging.

In the video, Isitt can be seen telling the driver that the situation is not safe and he has the right to refuse unsafe work. Isitt offers the man cash and suggests people raise enough money to persuade him to decline the work he was contracted to do.

The Pacheedaht have told the protesters they are not welcome in their territory.

“We take the view that this is deplorably unacceptable behaviour for an elected official who is in a position of power and influence, and is capable by vote or behaviour of imposing negative impacts on our nation,” Jones said in the letter.

Jones told the CRD that Isitt’s behaviour confirms the Pacheedaht cannot trust the CRD to respect its rights and title or conduct business with appropriate deference to the First Nation. The First Nation has repeatedly urged the CRD to stop interfering with its decisions, Jones said.

“We require immediate assurance that CRD will take corrective action and begin properly and respectfully conducting the business of the regional district without further delay,” he wrote.

CRD board chairman Colin Plant said he spoke Tuesday with Jones about the First Nation’s concerns, in a meeting planned before the letter was received. He said he told Jones that Isitt’s actions do not represent the position of the CRD, and both agreed to continue working together, Plant said.

Isitt has responded to Jones’s letter, saying he was invited by Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones to join other municipal politicians in the blockaded area to ensure the rights of his constituents and others were respected.

“When I observed a purported contractor of [logging company] Teal Cedar attempting to unlawfully tow personal vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road, I advised him that he was acting unlawfully and encouraged him not to seize this private property,” Isitt wrote in his response.

Isitt is in the process of becoming a lawyer and said he was acting as a legal assistant collecting information for affidavits related to the towing of cars that are not blocking the logging roads.

In the video, a woman who identifies herself as a police liaison says demonstrators were informed earlier by police that vehicles could be towed. People accepted the risk or left, she says. The Teal-Jones Group has contracted a towing company to remove vehicles identified by the RCMP as being illegally parked, the company said in a statement.

“In some cases vehicle owners have removed their tires, positioned their vehicle at a narrow point, and taken other steps to hinder access and make removal as difficult as possible. That strongly indicates the people parking those vehicles know they’re doing so illegally,” the company said.

The cost of retrieving a vehicle is $2,500, which Teal-Jones said reflects the expense of towing out of a remote area, storage, security and damage to the company.

Isitt said in an interview that improving relationships with Indigenous communities is a top priority, but protection of the last stands of old-growth rainforests on Vancouver Island is also extremely important. “And we have to find a way to reconcile those objectives,” he said.

Isitt said he does not plan to resign from Victoria’s City Family, a body that works toward reconciliation with First Nations.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city remains committed to reconciliation, and Isitt’s actions were not on behalf of council.

On Wednesday, the CRD board postponed indefinitely discussion of Isitt’s motion to protect old-growth forests in a manner consistent with reconciliation, after Jones said that the motion goes against the nation’s right to determine what is best for its lands and resources.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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