After the City of Nanaimo moved to rezone an ancient Snuneymuxw village site, B.C.’s reconciliation minister stepped in

‘It’s important we allow time for this work to occur,’ the minister said as he offered mediation between the City of Nanaimo, Snuneymuxw First Nation and the Millstone Riverfront developer.
The entrance to Snuneymuxw First Nation head office
“When the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854 was signed,” Chief Mike Wyse (Xumtilum) said in a public statement, “Sxwayxum was an occupied village site to be protected and kept for the use of the Snuneymuxw People.” Photo provided by Snuneymuxw First Nation

Work on the Millstone Riverfront development project is on pause until September after the province stepped in to offer mediation between the City of Nanaimo, Snuneymuxw First Nation and Victoria-based developer Oakwood Park Estates.

The private property is on the treaty-protected Snuneymuxw village site Sxwayxum, also known as the former Howard Johnson Harbourside Hotel. 

Nanaimo’s city plan and a protocol agreement with Snuneymuxw First Nation, originally signed in 2009, requires the city to maintain a government-to-government relationship as it moves forward on major projects. 

The city broke this protocol by moving to rezone the area for the mixed-use development and subdivision during a May 18 council meeting, according to a statement from Snuneymuxw First Nation posted the next day. 

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At that time, Chief Mike Wyse (Xumtilum) said “the City is reverting to colonial and extinguish-based approaches to working with the Snuneymuxw People, propagating oppressive processes and destructive outcomes.”

Days later, the city responded by acknowledging the “privately owned land is located within the area of a significant ancestral village site for SFN (Snuneymuxw First Nation)” adding it  “followed the legislative process, as set out by the Province.” The city went on to state there would be no future communications with the public for the time being on the project.

Then on July 10, Nanaimo City Council received a letter from Tom McCarthy, B.C. Deputy Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, urging council to pause any decisions made in the rezoning and development approval of Millstone Riverfront property at 1 Terminal Ave. 

“In response to the letter from the Province, Council elected to not adopt the [rezoning] bylaw and instead deferred consideration until the regular Council meeting of Sept. 25, 2023,” Dale Lindsay, the city’s general manager of development services, tells The Discourse.

Like other Snuneymuxw village sites, Sxwayxum is protected by the Snuneymuxw Treaty of 1854, a pre-confederation treaty signed between Snuneymuxw First Nation and the Crown, represented by Sir James Douglas. 

The nation entered into the treaty to “forever and always preserve and protect Snuneymuxw villages, enclosed fields, waterways, harvesting and gathering, and the rights to hunt and fisheries as formerly,” Snuneymuxw First Nation explains.

The treaty specifically recognizes Sxwayxum as one of the main holdings of the nation’s generational connection to the surrounding lands and waters, the nation states on its website

Although treaties are protected by Sec. 35 of Canada’s Constitution, since 1854 these commitments have been eroded as village sites were sold to private interests.

In the protocol agreement between the city and the nation, renewed in 2019, the two parties “renew their commitment to a true, meaningful and transformative government-to-government relationship” to advance reconciliation and lead to mutually beneficial outcomes.

Owner Oakwood Park Estates is proposing a 134-room hotel with 10,000 square feet of commercial space and 760 residential units for the site. 

The developer had met all conditions placed by the City of Nanaimo before rezoning bylaws could be adopted, confirms Lindsay, the city’s general manager of development services. 

This included an environmental assessment conducted in August 2022

A 2021 archeological impact assessment for the area is still under review by the B.C. archaeology branch after being reviewed by City of Nanaimo and Snuneymuxw First Nation, according to the July 10 letter sent to city council.

Snuneymuxw First Nation did not respond to The Discourse’s request for comment by deadline.

A rendering of the Nanaimo Millstone Riverfront Project at 1 Terminal Ave. Image courtesy of D’Ambrosio Architecture

Lorne Brownsey, a former deputy minister of aboriginal affairs, has been appointed by the province “as an independent fact-finder” to “identify pathways to resolving the issues involving your city, the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and Oakwood Park Estates (developer) that are associated with this rezoning and proposed development,” McCarthy explains in the letter.

In 2014 Brownsey helped negotiate a deal that halted the construction of a luxury retirement home on the village site and burial grounds of Shiyahwt, briefly known as Grace Islet off Salt Spring Island. 

After a blockade and stop work order from local First Nations, the province agreed to compensate the private developer while entering into a protocol agreement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the regional district and the eight First Nations with rights and title to the islet. “Our ancestors can now rest in peace on Grace Islet,” Vern Jacks, Chief of the Tseycum First Nation, said in 2015.

In May, Snuneymuxw First Nation took back ownership of 41 hectares of land at its kwula’xw village site along the Nanaimo River in a deal stemming from four years of negotiations with private landowner Seacliff Properties.

Read more Snuneymuxw reclaims kwula’xw in Land Back deal that will bring members home

In a statement to The Discourse, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation supports collaboration and dialogue between Snuneymuxw First Nation, the City of Nanaimo and Oakwood Park Estates. 

They are confident that mediation talks facilitated by Brownsey will aid in work that all parties agree to. 

“It’s important we allow time for this work to occur,” the statement reads. “We acknowledge and respect the sensitivity around the historic Sxwayxum village site and hope all parties can come to an understanding.”

The province reports Brownsey has now met with all three representatives to discuss what action to take. “My view is that the multi-party negotiation, particularly led by a skilled and experienced former public servant such as Lorne Brownsey, has the potential to reach a successful resolution that meets the interests of all parties,” McCarthy stated in the July 10 letter.

This article was made possible thanks to the community-minded readers who support this work.

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