The B.C. government is working with Carrier Sekani Family Services to find a path forward for a proposed treatment and healing facility for people with substance use issues after a decision by the Agricultural Land Commission set back the project.
“The work that Carrier Sekani Family Services does and wants to do by expanding what they can do is very supportable,” said Lana Popham, the minister of agriculture, food and fisheries.
“The fact they were turned down by the Agricultural Land Commission doesn’t mean we can’t work with them to try and find a path forward to make this a reality, but it’s going to take partnering and working together and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
The CSFS proposal is for a 2,733-metre-square facility that would have space for 60 treatment beds. It also includes a 400-metre-square parking lot.
The agency, a non-profit that provides holistic wellness services to First Nations people in Carrier and Sekani territory in north-central B.C., wants to build the facility on a 9.3-hectare property that’s in the Agricultural Land Reserve on lakefront close to Vanderhoof.
The property is currently the site of Tachick Lake Resort and has an existing 185-metre-square lodge, 10 cabins and 33 campsites that the land commission says predate the 1972 creation of the land reserve and are therefore allowed as long as they remain in use.
In a unanimous decision, the three-person land commission panel for northern B.C. approved the non-farm use of the property the CSFS proposed, but only using the existing buildings and not with the new construction the agency wanted.
To Cheslatta Carrier Chief Corrina Leween, the president of CSFS, the decision was unacceptable.
She sent a March 4 letter to Agriculture Minister Popham, as well as Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, criticizing the land commission and requesting urgent action.
“In effect, the decision denies CSFS the possibility of building the healing/treatment facility on the property,” she wrote. “The property is the only suitable property in the region that meets the criteria necessary for the vision for this urgently needed facility.”
Leween added, “It is absurd to suggest that a modern medical residential treatment facility could operate in a lodge and cabins designed for recreational use.”
On Monday, the BC Liberal opposition raised the issue in the legislature, where Premier John Horgan and Malcolmson responded to questions by saying they want to see the project proceed. Malcolmson said she was disappointed by the land commission’s decision.
Speaking to The Tyee Tuesday, Popham said that the government is committed to addressing the overdose public health emergency, but it also has to respect and protect the land commission’s independence.
Popham said the commission was doing the job the government asks it to do when it looked at the CSFS application through an agricultural lens. “Their mandate is to protect agricultural land and increase production,” she said.
“We don’t want to set a precedent of interfering with the Agricultural Land Commission, so it’s important for us to be able to work with the nation, work with the other ministers involved and figure out how we can support this.”
There are options available to the CSFS, Popham said, adding that her deputy minister and other ministry staff have been meeting with its representatives to find a way forward.
One option is for the CSFS to ask the land commission for a reconsideration, something the commission will do when there’s new information or there were errors in the information it based its decision on.
Another would be to apply to have the land excluded from the Agricultural Land Reserve, something that can be done when there’s support from a local municipal or First Nations government, Popham said.
“A land exclusion is possible, but it is agricultural land,” she said. “It’s not super common, but they do do it.”
Martin Collins, the director of policy and planning for the land commission, said another option would be for the CSFS to apply to the federal government to add the property to reserve land, and that doing so would exempt it from the province’s laws protecting agricultural land.
He said the process can be lengthy, and he understands the CSFS instead plans as a next step to ask the land commission to reconsider its decision. “It is quite possible it will move through the reconsideration piece and be resolved. We’ll see.”
Collins said the land commission’s decision speaks for itself. He added that when a board is given decision-making power and a framework to make those decisions in, it should be trusted to make them.
Nobody from CSFS was available for an interview Tuesday.
A statement from CSFS said the agency chose the Tachick Lake site after years of due diligence and feasibility studies. It quoted Chief Leween saying that Indigenous people are dying from overdoses at a rate five times higher than the rest of the province’s population.
“Carrier Sekani Family Services has waited more than 25 years for the full support needed to develop a quality treatment and healing facility,” she said. “No further delay should be endured.”
The agency is considering asking the commission to reconsider its decision, but also “has called on all levels of government to come up with ways to make this project happen. If land can go into the ALR, it can come out.”
The statement said that while CSFS has $5.7 million from the First Nations Health Authority for the project, it expects the total budget to be $16 million. Talks are underway with provincial, federal and FNHA officials around the shortfall.
Popham, whose stepson died in 2018 from a fentanyl poisoning after a five-year struggle with addiction, said she understands how desperately people are trying to find solutions.
“It’s a massive problem,” she said. “I’m doing my part to make sure we can find support for this project.”