Cowichan Tribes eyes change to gain land control

Cowichan Tribes First Nation is contacting thousands of members across the Island and beyond to participate in a process toward self-government of their land.

“We have about 5,000 members, but only 2,000 live on reserve. In order for us to move forward we need all the community,” said Chief William (Chip) Seymour. Many members live in other Island communities, as well as on the mainland and in Washington state.

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Cowichan Tribes is the largest First Nation in B.C. with nine reserves in the Cowichan Valley and a traditional territory of 375,000 hectares. It is the fastest growing community in the region, with a 30 per cent population jump in Cowichan between 2006 and 2011. According to Statistics Canada, neighbouring communities such as Duncan saw a population decrease.

The band wants to adopt a land code on reserve land that will shift management of their lands from the federal government to the First Nation, making operations much like a municipality.

“We want to have control over our own lands. Anything we do now has to go through Ottawa and it can take months or years,” Seymour said, adding this has hindered income and employment opportunities, much-needed housing development and important infrastructure.

The land code, or Quw’utsun Tumuhw, was developed over several years and completed in July. The agreement takes the First Nation out of provisions in the Indian Act related to land management but does not affect treaty negotiations or tax-exemption status.

Seymour said the land code will allow the community to determine zoning, make property laws and building codes, and set environmental standards. They could, for example, require developers to provide infrastructure with projects, and require that homes use mould-resistant drywall and other environment-specific standards. It would also allow for cultural-based laws such as matrimonial property rights.

“A number of communities are still on wells and have boil-water advisories. Being able to get water and sewer lines will benefit everybody. It will enable citizens to get a mortgage when they couldn’t before because the infrastructure wasn’t there,” he said.

“The biggest project we’re looking at is housing. The demand for housing is very high. Right now we build two or three homes a year but we need 700 homes with a growing population.”

Cowichan Tribes is one of several First Nations on Vancouver Island to pursue a land code — is a step toward self-government. Others include T’souke, which was able to bring in a solar and greenhouse program; Tsawout, which is developing a shopping centre on the Patricia Bay Highway; and Beecher Bay, which partnered on the new waterfront development Spirit Bay. Songhees, We Wai Kai (Cape Mudge), We Wai Kum (Campbell River), K’omoks, Nanoose and Stz’uminus also manage their lands.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Ken Cossey, a Shawnigan Lake-based community planner who has worked with several First Nations to implement land codes.

“One nation I worked with spent 18 years trying to get a lease approved. After the land code, within 18 months there were houses and lease income was coming in.”

Cowichan Tribes’ land code agreement has been presented to the community in several forums and will be discussed again at a meeting on Feb. 22.

Land code co-ordinator Candace Charlie said one of the biggest concerns is the band’s capacity to manage everything.

“We will have to train staff and would need to hire a city planner,” she said, adding the federal government provides operational funding.

Brian Thom, an anthropology professor at the University of Victoria, said self-government can be a challenge, especially for smaller bands. He said a nation as big as Cowichan Tribes could see major benefits.

“They’re extremely well-poised to see success,” said Thom, noting the band has a large number of members who have certificates of possession for land and are likely very interested in how the new code could benefit and affect them.

The important thing is for members to take an interest and vote, whether they live in the community or not, said Norm Thorne, program enhancement officer for Cowichan Tribes. “The underlying current is this is a chance for our community to participate in deciding our future.”

The ratification vote takes place April 10 and 11 and needs a turnout of 25 per cent of eligible members and a 51 per cent majority to pass. Online and mail-in voting will be available.

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