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UPDATE: Nanaimo's water supply issue heads to court

The Snuneymuxw First Nation is proceeding with court action as the City of Nanaimo tries to secure a future water supply.

The city is entering negotiations with Nanaimo Forest Products to explore potentially purchasing water from the Harmac mill system. While city council intends to confer with Snuneymuxw before any deal is signed, it is not prepared to give the band a veto over any decisions.

As well as a potential deal with Harmac, the city is looking at building a $60-million dam in the Nanaimo Lakes watershed.

Nanaimo’s existing water supply infrastructure has the capacity to provide safe drinking water for 100,000 people. That population number is expected to be reached by 2020.

The city’s water demand is estimated between 40-50 megalitres daily. Nanaimo Forest Products operates the Fourth Lake Dam and is entitled to about 330 megalitres of water per day.

The proposal upset the Snuneymuxw First Nation, which is challenging the lawfulness of the existing water licences granted to Nanaimo Forest Products by the provincial government decades ago.

At a Feb. 6 news conference, Mayor John Ruttan gave Chief Douglas White III a commitment the city would not enter into an agreement without Snuneymuxw First Nation approval.

Ruttan said it was later brought to his attention he was not authorized to make that promise.

“There was a council meeting following the press conference and I was reminded I don’t have the sole authority and that the city’s position is we don’t need the chief’s approval,” he said.

A letter to White on Monday informed Snuneymuxw the city is entering negotiations with Nanaimo Forest Products to amend the water licence and should a deal be made, it will consult with the band regarding any potential adverse impacts on the band’s rights.

In a press release Tuesday, White said the mayor and councillors have shown their true colours and there is clearly little leadership at city hall.

“The mayor recognized the implications of Snuneymuxw’s treaty-protected interests in water and made a commitment that we thought we could rely on,” said White. “They have now broken their word. If that is the path we are on, then we will simply hash it out with them in court. If the city wants to subject the taxpayers to a protracted fight at a great expense, rather than honouring their word and our voice, then that is their choice.”

White said he thought at the press conference Ruttan had a clear understanding of what it means to live in a treaty relationship with Snuneymuxw, and then he reads about a veto.

"This is not about a veto. A veto is about some person having approval or disapproval power over someone else’s decision. That’s not the framework I want to be in," he said. "I’m here to be a meaningful part of a discussion leading toward an agreement that meets everybody’s needs."

Snuneymuxw’s first court action will be against Nanaimo Forest Products and the province over the existing water licences.

Those licences were issued by the province in violation of the Treaty of 1854 and have caused massive damage to Snuneymuxw’s use of the Nanaimo River, said White.

Snuneymuxw will also target the city.

White said the city’s broken promise of Feb. 6 will be highlighted as evidence of its improper conduct on this matter.

Ruttan said the first point in litigation is to explain what was done wrong.

“We haven’t even sat down and negotiated with Harmac yet, so we have no idea if an arrangement will be met,” he said. “I think to get into litigation because of proposed talks is quite questionable.”

The mayor said the city made repeated attempts to find out what Snuneymuxw wants out of the water issue and has yet to receive a response.

“We expressed the need for a commitment from SFN one way or the other before the end of 2011 because we needed to make some decisions,” said Ruttan. “The city does have a timeline. If the water is not available from Harmac or if the price is an amount we’re unable to afford, then we need to build a dam and we need to start now.

“The chief has the luxury, perhaps, of not committing himself at this time, but we don’t. We need to plan early and in the absence of meaningful negotiations from Chief White, we have to continue on the path of finding other sources of water.”

White said he has spent the last two years trying to educate the city how important the water in the Nanaimo River is to his people.

“There is no way that the city, Harmac and the province will be proceeding in any way with respect to this water without Snuneymuxw,” he said.

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