It’s no coincidence this week’s big announcement of a $30-million tax windfall for the Tk’emlups and Skeechestn Indian Bands came on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Laurier Memorial.
The memorial — actually a compellingly worded letter written to then-Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and presented to him at a meeting in Kamloops on Aug. 25, 1910 — outlines First Nations grievances against “whites,” and demands fair treatment.
The deal worked out for the sharing of tax revenues from the New Afton Mine is expected to put $2.5 million into the combined coffers of the two bands every year for at least the next 12 years — longer if the ore lasts.
The money will be split evenly between the TIB (population about 1,000), and Skeetchestn (population about 500). If the City of Kamloops were to receive a similar deal pro-rated by population, it would pretty much pay the annual property-tax bill of every city homeowner for the next dozen years.
When the other shoe drops — the province promises to make a similar deal for Highland Valley Copper, potentially worth several times more than the New Afton agreement — one would have to think local First Nations are getting pretty close to the fair share and fair treatment talked about in the Laurier Memorial.
Randy Hawes, the minister of state for mining, told me this week taxes from the New Afton deal will be put into a joint trust account to be divvied up as the two bands wish.
The only string, he said, is that “We want to make sure it’s going toward building an economic base and community development.”
While the New Afton agreement is based on a 37.5 per cent cut of total taxes, that’s not a number that will necessarily be used for Highland Valley and other such deals in the province, he said. Each one will be negotiated to a dollar amount.
TIB chief Shane Gottfriedson and Hawes acknowledged that negotiations were difficult. “They drive a hard bargain,” said Hawes.
Indeed, the TIB and Skeetchestn have been particularly skilled at arm-wrestling various levels of government.
Through tough negotiating, for example, the TIB came away from the City’s Rayleigh slo-pitch project not only with 20 gratis hectares at the project itself (City taxpayers were billed $240,000 for 112 hectares), but with another 16 hectares of Crown land straddling Westsyde Road on the opposite side of the river. Both chunks are enclaves within City boundaries.
There was no public consultation on the transfer; when adjacent property owners complained, all levels of government gave them a “too bad, so sad” brushoff.
The Tobiano development on Kamloops Lake has been another source of income for both the TIB and Skeetchestn bands. Almost 10 years ago, the province gave them $1 million; three years ago, they negotiated further compensation — Skeetchestn got a quarter of a million for an access from the highway to its Big Sky fuel stop, while the TIB was compensated $62,000 to pay for an interchange on the Yellowhead Highway, plus other incidentals.
Such concessions are based on the concept that when Crown land is “alienated” from traditional First Nations territory, compensation is in order.
Then there are those contentious land claims, which include private land. The TIB doesn’t want to scoop them, but it does want the feds to pay compensation for those, too.
By now, the TIB must be one of the richest bands in the country due to its happy location adjacent to a major B.C. community, excellent developable land, and a progressive band council.
Projects on the books in recent years have included a new administration building, a $1.5 million carwash, a $100-million commercial-residential project, new water and sewage plants, and a major new industrial-commercial subdivision. Never mind the Mount Paul industrial park cash cow, and the booming Sun Rivers golf and residential lease development.
Once in awhile, the TIB’s aggressive approach backfires. When it got pushy with the City and threatened to jack up lease rates on the aging KXA agriplex, the City called its bluff and walked away, leaving the band scrambling to do something with what had become a white elephant. When the band lowered the boom on the struggling exhibition association with a demand for $100,000 in extra taxes, it deservedly reaped a mountain of ill will and bad PR.
While Indian band spending isn’t subject to the same accountability and transparency as municipalities, the band claims it generates 80 per cent of its own revenues and injects $250,000 into the local economy each year.
Across the nation, more than $8 billion of federal money annually goes into supporting First Nations, though the recipients point out some of that is for federal administration. Their own numbers show federal support as amounting to $7,200 for each status band member.
Before Mr. and Mrs. Redneck shout, “Right on, Mel, when are those people going to stop bleeding us white folks dry,” let’s keep in mind that Aboriginal communities have disproportionately high rates of poverty, incarceration, alcoholism and unemployment, and less education.
It’s shameful that 100 years after the chiefs wrote their letter to Laurier, their grievances haven’t been answered. Admittedly, some “whites” have trouble keeping it all in context when they see ever-sweeter deals being signed under new sets of rules, and chafe under threat of being labeled “racist” if they ask too many questions.
Former TIB chief Manny Jules sees a different answer. He’s been crusading for years to get private property rights for the country’s 600,000 status Indians on band land. Jules says under the current system that land is “dead capital” but would increase many times in value if band members obtained private property rights.
His critics, on the other hand, say that approach runs counter to native culture.
Bottom line, though, the TIB is doing pretty good, and so is Skeetchestn. When I asked Hawes if they and other Interior bands are getting close to the ideals stated in the Laurier Memorial, of past wrongs righted, of a fair share, he replied with a hopeful, “We’re looking for that.”