Comment: Conflict of interest amid North Cowichan trees

A commentary by a veteran environmental journalist and winner of eight Jack Webster journalism awards who recently moved from Tsawwassen to Maple Bay in the Cowichan Valley.

We live in an era of reconciliation. Everyone wants First Nations to improve their situation, to prosper economically. But does that mean society should turn a blind eye when Aboriginals do something that would rightly subject non-natives to criticism?

I don’t think so, and here’s why:

The other day, I was driving down Stoney Hill Road when I spotted two white pickup trucks — one owned by the Municipality of North Cowichan, the other by Khowutzun Forest Services — parked next to an older clearcut within the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve. I immediately had a problem with this seemingly innocuous scenario.

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Khowutzun Forest Services is owned by Cowichan Tribes, and the operations manager is Cedar Elliott, recently appointed to the municipality’s Forestry Advisory Committee.

The FAC is tasked with advising council on logging issues within the forest reserve, far and away the most contentious issue to hit the community in years.

A company headed by a member of the FAC receiving municipal forestry contracts should ring alarm bells, right? After all, council’s terms of reference for the FAC specifically state that “committee members shall absent themselves from discussions or decision-making at committee meetings if there is a potential conflict of interest.”

Turns out no one wants to act, especially since it involves First Nations.

Councillor Rob Douglas, who chairs the FAC, confirms that Khowutzun — a for-profit, commercial enterprise — recently received a municipal contract to remove invasive Scotch broom. Tree cones used to protect seedlings from wildlife were also removed on Stoney Hill.

The job was considered too small to put to public bid and, besides, council likes to hire First Nations where possible. Says Douglas: “I think there’s an expectation that municipalities will try to support First Nations in economic development, and this is one way of doing that. When you work with First Nations, I see it as a bit different.”

In other words, a double standard.

Don’t look elsewhere for help on the conflict issue. The Union of B.C. Municipalities suggested I contact the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which told me to contact Ted Swabey, the chief administrative officer for North Cowichan.

Swabey, who supports continued logging in the forest reserve, sent me a letter saying, in part: “Inherent in the creation of ‘select committees’ is the appointment of experts having viewpoints on both sides of an issue, both with potential for intrinsic conflicts.”

After the November municipal election, North Cowichan residents turned out by the hundreds to demand an end to business-as-usual logging within the forest reserve. Citizens also requested broader representation on the pro-logging-dominated FAC.

Be careful what you wish for.

When Cowichan Tribes was asked to put forward a representative, they offered up Elliott.

Douglas argues that a conflict issue could potentially be raised about any tribal member appointed to the FAC and that it would be unfair to keep them off. “This is traditional land that they’ve held for generations,” he says. “They wouldn’t be happy if we said: ‘We’re not going to involve you on this expanded committee.’ ”

As for Elliott, he says he’s just one member of the FAC, which makes recommendations to council and has zero decision-making power, including over the issuing of contracts.

Sure, Khowutzun may profit from continued logging in the Municipal Forest Reserve, but Elliott argues the company might make more money if logging is stopped and more contracts are let for thinning and other initiatives to reduce urban fire risk.

Knowing the conflict could run both ways doesn’t make me feel any better.

Khowutzun receives contracts with the municipality not just for removal of Scotch broom, but silviculture and fighting wildfires. Elliott said the company grossed abut $5 million last year, with just $12,823 of that from the municipality. He also insists that Khowutzun’s financial bottom line “doesn’t enter my mind at all” when he sits on the advisory committee.

I don’t know Elliott. I have no reason to think he’s not a good and honourable man and a qualified individual who means the best for his people and can fairly contribute to deliberations of the FAC.

But a perceived conflict of interest can be as bad as the real thing.

One private company that has done extensive logging work for the municipality is Millstone Contracting Ltd., with a registered office in Nanaimo. A corporate summary provided by the provincial government lists the president as David Arthur Balcom and vice-president/secretary as Douglas Hugh Sawden.

The appointment of either gentleman to the FAC would rightly be grounds for public criticism, so why should First Nations be any different?

This is a critical time for the municipality. Council has suspended new logging for a year while it consults with the public on the future of the Municipal Forest Reserve. There are plenty of tough decisions ahead, and a need to handle the process the right way.

Council is already taking heat from the watchdog group Where Do We Stand, for supporting a FAC decision to remove blowdown timber — a process that requires some logging — without adequate public consultation.

I’ll be at the next meeting of the FAC — taking notes near the front, but keeping my mouth shut. Council has ruled that the public is not permitted to appear before the FAC to speak on forestry issues — yet another questionable decision, which, rightly or wrongly, only heightens public suspicions about this largely unelected body.

There’s still an opportunity for the municipality to set the right course for deliberations and decision-making on the critical forestry file, but time is quickly running out.

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