Water Dispute Heats Up Nanaimo City vs First Nation

B. McPherson

People are gradually waking up to the fact that the most precious resource we have is water. Without it life as we know it would not exist. Along with that realization is the knowledge that water is a finite resource. Many of the world’s people do not have access to clean abundant water.

Here on the west coast of Canada many refer jokingly to the ‘wet coast’ because of the teeming rainfall in winter. Few realize that much of the east coast of Vancouver Island has a true Mediterranean climate with sparse rainfall in the summer months. As the world’s climate changes there is increasing uncertainty in the reliability of the rainfall or that the snow pack on the mountains will be sufficient to supply ample water to the people and the environment.

The City of Nanaimo is a small, sprawling town that looks to expand its population. Currently there is enough water to supply about 100 000 people and their households. Aging infrastructure and expanding population are driving the city politicians to look for new or upgraded sources of fresh water.

One of the directions that the city is looking is towards the water licenses held by the local pulp mill. Nanaimo Forest Products operates the mill that was established in the 1950s. At that time resource extraction was king in the province of British Columbia and the native people’s rights were pretty much ignored. Times have changed.

It is a sad fact that many of the human rights and legal rights of the aboriginal people of N. America have been trampled by the rush to explore and exploit the “New World”. Now, there seems to be a new generation of better educated, more assertive leaders and they are helping the local First Nation group to assert their rights under the pre-Confederation treaties. For now, they are looking to assert their right to be equal partners in deciding disposition of resources.

Snuneymuxw announced its intention to take legal action in early February.  Snuneymuxw will take legal action because the current water licenses issued to NFP violate the Treaty of 1854.  Further, the Province, City, and Harmac cannot transfer or amend the licenses without Snuneymuxw's involvement, and if they try to do that Snuneymuxw will pursue further court action. Snuneymuxw First Nation

 The local band, Snuneymuxw First Nation is asserting their rights to be active participants in the sourcing and use of the local water resources, citing their rights under treaties signed between 1850 and 1854. These are known as the Douglas Treaties. The governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island at that time was James Douglas, representing Britain.  The treaties regarded land sales on the island in exchange for goods and the assurances of retention of other rights. This May the Snuneymuxw in conjunction with the local university will be holding workshops pertaining to the complexities of the treaties signed by Governor Douglas and the Snuneymuxw First Nation. 

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