First Nation receiving $49M in downtown Nanaimo land settlement

Snuneymuxw First Nation members have ratified a $49 million settlement with the federal government for 79 acres of former Indian reserve land in the middle of downtown Nanaimo.

“Our people have voted nearly unanimously to accept the terms of the settlement agreement and trust agreement,” acting chief Douglas White said.

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The land was taken by the Crown in the 1880s, he said.

“Our people have taken a historic step to ratify an agreement that strikes at the core of our relationship with Canada,” said White.

“Real harm was done to our nation and citizens with the loss of this reserve, known as Thlap’qwam, and this settlement partially addresses that loss.”

The settlement of $49,148,121 is “the largest specific claim settlement in B.C. history by a factor of five,” White said.

“It’s been an enormous amount of work,” he said. “What do you do about an amount of money that was owed in the late 19th century? How do you bring that value forward to today?”

The negotiations began in 2003 and the final proposal was accepted in the summer of 2014, finalized this spring and ratified by the Snuneymuxw on Saturday.

In addition, the settlement includes an “additions to reserve” clause recognizing the right of the Snuneymuxw to negotiate 79 acres of replacement reserve land, and an accelerated process to get it.

“On one hand there’s the money compensation, a value that represents the value of the undeveloped land and the value of the loss of the use of the land — all of it brought forward to 2016 dollars,” White said.

“But also, a really important component of the agreement is Canada’s promise that the Snuneymuxw has the right to request 79 acres of replacement Indian reserve land.”

Federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett congratulated the Snuneymuxw First Nation on the ratification of the settlement agreement.

“Specific claim agreements are an important tool to help right past wrongs and advance reconciliation with First Nations communities in Canada,” Bennett said in an email. “We look forward to finalizing this agreement on a nation-to-nation basis.”

Ninety-eight per cent of the Snuneymuxw First Nation members who voted were in favour of the deal. It’s expected it will take at the least eight to 12 months to receive the funds.

The money from the settlement will go to several categories including to individual members, advocacy and into a trust to purchase land and invest money to generate future wealth.

“It’s basically aimed at enhancing the well-being of the Snuneymuxw people,” said White. “We’ve done a lot of work to … create a balance for immediate and longer-term benefits.”

The loss of this land in the heart of Nanaimo has profoundly impacted the Snuneymuxw people and nation, White said.

Only one-third of Snuneymuxw people now live on-reserve due to the lack of land. The Snuneymuxw have the smallest Indian reserve land base per capita in the country, he said.

“The settlement cannot change the past, and how that past has structured our present reality,” White said. “But it does provide Snuneymuxw with a transform-ative infusion of resources to address the significant needs of our nation.”

This settlement work has taken 25 years and was started by a lot of people who are no longer alive, so there’s an obligation to honour their wishes, White said.

Elders first raised the issue in the late 1980s. Late chief Robert Thomas and his council directed that historical and legal research be done into the loss, which was submitted to Specific Claims Canada in 1992.

The claim for negotiation was accepted by the federal government in 2003 and over the past couple of years, the Snuneymuxw and the federal government reached a settlement.

The Snuneymuxw have crafted a community trust to receive the settlement amount.

Official results were announced by chief electoral officer Theresa Marion after members voted by mail-in ballot and in person.

Of the 848 total votes cast by 1,312 eligible voters, 828 voted “yes” to approve the settlement and 16 voted “no.” Voter turnout was 64.6 per cent.

Coun. Erralyn Thomas said the hard work of making the nation whole will begin by executing the settlement agreement and placing the funds into a trust.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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