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BC committee debates paying for transit by taxing First Nations

VANCOUVER - A Metro Vancouver regional district committee is floating the idea of imposing a levy on the area's aboriginals to add millions to its cash-strapped transit system, a suggestion immediately deemed "unacceptable" by First Nations leaders.

The Aboriginal Relations Committee is proposing the idea of a fee for First Nations who live on band land to the provincial government, in the hopes Metro will win approval from the Ministry of Transportation to implement the tax.

While it's currently only a suggestion, "the discussion needs to happen," according to the committee's chairman, who is mayor of Maple Ridge.

Mayor Ernie Daykin said the committee will be sending a recommendation to the TransLink Mayor's Council.

"There's going to be a line or something in there with the thought that, 'the TransLink Mayor's Council and Regional Transportation has an obligation to address the issue of TransLink levies on behalf of the region's taxpayers,'" said Daykin.

"I'm paying $175 for my house each year to TransLink," he said, adding aboriginal residents with houses on First Nations land who want public transportation services should pay a similar amount.

"Because we're all paying into that regional pot," Daykin said.

If the same levy applied to First Nations land, the committee believes Translink could generate an extra $2.4 to $3.6 million in revenue.

But First Nations leaders say they already pay fees to Metro Vancouver and the committee should have consulted them first before suggesting the plan.

Musqueam Coun. Wade Grant said he had no idea the levy was being discussed and wondered why the Aboriginal Relations Committee continually fails to consult First Nations.

"First Nations find it completely frustrating that these types of decisions or these types of ideas are brought forward without any consideration," Grant said.

"Musqueam itself is just getting by on a day-to-day basis with respect to the transfer funding that we do get (from the federal government) which is why we're working hard on economic development. We're not where we want it to be and we're still trying to create a self-sufficient community."

Grant said that Musqueam pays over $1 million for different services that the city provides.

"It just seems that whenever shortfalls come up they want to look at new ideas and it always falls on the back of First Nations, and that's just something we find unacceptable," he said.

"We would like to know if they would like to come down and speak with us. We're very transparent and we would let them know what we pay and those types of things, but right now it just seems like it's this shadowed organization."

The Aboriginal Relations Committee's report discussed last week states municipalities could benefit financially from development in First Nations communities.

"The financial implications of future development on reserves and any related servicing agreements with municipalities is largely unknown at this time," the report stated.

"However, it is expected that the financial implications will, on a cumulative basis, be significant."

Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Bryce Williams, a member of the Aboriginal Relations Committee, said his nation already pays a fee to TransLink that's equivalent to a transit-service levy based on property tax assessments.

Williams said he thinks First Nations should have a choice to opt in our out but wasn't sure how such a fee would work yet, since the discussion is just beginning. Williams was unable to attend last week's meeting where the levy was discussed.

"(Tsawwassen First Nation) chose to be a member of TransLink and every First Nation should have that choice. If a First Nation chooses to be a TransLink member they should do so based on discussion with TransLink and based on analysis of cost versus service. If they judge it to be worthwhile they should pay for that service," he said.

"But First Nations should not be held hostage to pay for a transit service that they may not receive simply because they're trying to access unrelated services like water or sewage."

Williams also felt other First Nations in the Lower Mainland didn't get enough warning about the idea.

"(It) seems like it wasn't the right consultation with certain communities."

Cara McKenna reports for The Canadian Press.

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