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In Tsawwassen, a Cow for the Killing

When saving farmland and forging treaties conflict, sacred blood is spilled.

By Charles Campbell 27 Apr 2007 |

Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor and author of the David Suzuki Foundation report Forever Farmland: Reshaping the Agricultural Land Reserve for the 21st Century.

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Deltaport: massive expansion?

A lot of crazy things were said last week at an SFU Downtown forum on the plan to take 207 hectares out of the Agricultural Land Reserve to settle a treaty with the Tsawwassen Band. Some folks just lose all their marbles when you show them two sacred cows and ask them to pick one for slaughter.

Throw in a small herd of sacred calves and an ox or two to gore, and you've got total chaos at the abattoir. Some treaty land may well become part of a massive expansion of Deltaport. That means shipping, from China, which means globalization, which means contracting out, loss of national sovereignty, and child labour, plus a smidgen of deadly pet food. Ships are notorious polluters, and coal travels through the port, so global warming is an issue. The inherent right of aboriginal communities to screw up as badly as the colonists is definitely on the table. Then there's the B.C. Rail spur line to the port, so privatization looms large, with Dave Basi lurking in its shadow. Did I mention Gordon Campbell? Oh, the hatred.

Western Canada Wilderness Committee stalwart Joe Foy raised the pollution issue. Essentially, he asked Tsawwassen band chief Kim Baird if she's worried that the proposed treaty might cause cancer. To which Baird replied that she didn't think agricultural practices necessarily benefit the environment.

Venerable farmer and Richmond councillor Harold Steves, who was a driving force behind the creation of the reserve, declared that "those of us who are concerned about life on this planet" believe nothing less than "mass starvation by 2080" is at issue.

Former Yukon premier and treaty-maker Tony Penikett heaped his own bucket of guilt and horror and shame onto the proceedings, which he opened with the foreboding words "As you all know, Europeans came to this continent about 500 years ago...." Before I finally fled from all the hyperbole, the treaty proponents hadn't actually said that the farmland preservationists were aggravating the rape and pillage of this continent's aboriginals, but the undercurrent was unmistakable.

No wonder the provincial NDP opposition has refused to take a position on the issue.

BC Liberals' backdoor plan?

The forum also heard some critically important and remarkably plain truths. Baird said that the Tsawwassen band needs to have some of its land returned to it, and more importantly it needs the ability to plan its own future on that land. Steves noted that British Columbians produce less than half of the food we eat, and that simply to stay at that level in the not too distant future we'll need to vastly increase production on a severely constrained agricultural land base. SFU professor and treaty negotiator Doug McArthur noted that when the ALR was created, aboriginal communities had no voice in the process, and that's a shortcoming we cannot disregard.

It's also true that we lose our best farmland one small piece at a time. And it's a given that governments sneak their most controversial plans through the back door, as far as possible from such messy inconveniences as public opinion and due process.

As such, pundit Bill Tieleman's assertion that the proposed settlement is "an attempt by the Gordon Campbell government to use the treaty process to get land out of the ALR to facilitate a huge expansion of Deltaport" seems pretty reasonable.

Steeves argued that a huge port at the mouth of the delta, when it was proposed by the W.A.C. Bennett government nearly 40 years ago, was the crucible of the ALR's creation, and contributed to the defeat of Social Credit by the NDP in 1972. Now as then, the loss of more than 400 hectares of Canada's best farmland is at stake, when directly affected farmland along the transportation corridor to the port is accounted for.

Baird said it's "unfair and misleading" to suggest the land being removed from the ALR will become port lands. She said her community would make its own decisions on the land's future. However, she also declared: "There will be no treaty without those lands coming out of the ALR." And Baird opened the door wide to port-related development. "We want to build an economy that benefits the band but also the region as a whole."

How governments sell out the farm

Tieleman said we'd all be better off if the provincial government just cut the Tsawwassen band a cheque. It would be a relief if the solution were that simple. Aboriginal communities do need the opportunity to plan their own future on at least some of the land that was taken from them. And like the proverbial farmer who wins the lottery, they may not wish to keep farming until the money's all gone.

The core of the problem is that governments -- aboriginal and otherwise -- are opportunist creatures of circumstance. From the Social Credit and Richmond's Terra Nova lands through the NDP and the Kamloops area's Six Mile Ranch to the B.C. Liberals in Tsawwassen, governments that ought to protect agricultural land too often view its conversion to another use as a cheap solution to a short-term political or economic challenge.

Governments regularly attach some noble cause to their efforts to exclude land from the reserve -- it's needed to raise the tiny town out of poverty, or for the old folks' home, or a ball field for the kids, or a park for the ages...anything that will get those little heartstrings a-humming. Lately, governments at all levels have been surfing a raft of land removal applications through the Agricultural Land Commission process on a wave of guilt over our society's treatment of aboriginals. We've seen the strategy in Prince George and Powell River, in Richmond and in Delta.

Certainly the Tsawwassen band, sandwiched between Deltaport and the BC Ferries causeway, which together have destroyed the shoreline at the band's doorstep, is entitled to redress. In seeking it, the band can hardly ignore the economic opportunity of port land development. And it's hardly surprising that the province, which long ago expropriated cheap farmland for planned port expansion, would capitalize on the opportunity.

There's lots of evidence to suggest that the B.C. Liberals have steered the treaty negotiations in a direction that will facilitate port development. Former NDP cabinet minister Tom Perry, who threatened to tear up his party membership over the NDP's equivocation, asked Baird if the band had asked for BC Ferries land. Baird replied that the province said it was not on the table. Steves asserted that the province decided which lands should come out of the ALR, and those lands are conveniently located next to the port and its transportation corridor.

BC Libs nicely positioned

We've lost a lot of prime agricultural land since the ALR was created -- 35 years ago this month. Developers and land speculators are part of the problem, of course, but governments have been complicit in all of the losses. Short-term thinking usually gets the better of us.

I'm not much of one for apocalyptic scenarios such as "mass starvation." But food security is a huge issue, and so is energy supply. History makes this very clear. Sure, port expansion will benefit us now. Will we still be able to use that capacity half a century into the future? It's hardly certain. But we will need to eat.

Unfortunately, this provincial government -- like many other governments -- tends to talk more than it walks in responding to the challenges of food security and our looming energy crisis. And while the commission that governs the Agricultural Land Reserve has shown some spine of late, turning down a Musqueam band-linked land removal application in Richmond, in the case of the Tsawwassen lands the province has cut the commission out of the process. The decision to remove the land will be a decision of the legislature.

The B.C. Liberals, of course, couldn't be happier about all this. Four decades ago, the plan to convert Delta farmland to serve the transportation industry helped to galvanized public opinion in favour of farmland protection. Today, a similar prospect has divided opinion. The government strategy down Roberts Bank way might deliver the province's first urban treaty and a big expansion of Deltaport. And here's the bonus that must have some Liberals stifling their bubbling glee: they've made the NDP look horribly indecisive, and the left's increasingly public dogfight shows no signs of abating.

In July, the 350-member Tsawwassen band is slated to vote on the proposed treaty. Baird says its approval is far from certain. One thing is clear, however. Federal, provincial and municipal governments are going to continue to hitch farmland redevelopment to aboriginal redress. When that happens, aboriginals should ask themselves if those governments have found a new way to abuse them.

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