Parks Canada hopes to have a non-binding agreement signed between Indigenous stakeholders and the province sometime in the summer of 2019 — however an official decision agreement could take years to negotiate according to officials.
Parks Canada recently released a consultation report outlining thousands of survey responses, concerns and meetings with many organizations throughout the Okanagan Valley. Officials answered media questions at a press conference Tuesday morning in Penticton prior to public meetings throughout the valley over the next few days.
“I want to emphasize with the release of the report today, to make it clear that no decisions have been made with respect to the establishment of a national park reserve in this area,” said Kevin McNamee, director of protected areas establishment, who answered questions from media alongside Sarah Boyle, a conservation biologist and project manager for the South Okanagan – Similkameen with Parks Canada.
“The release of this report does not constitute a decision. Rather we are reporting on the results of what we heard,” McNamee said.
The next step is bringing a brief agreement to the table.
“We are hoping that should the three parties agree, Parks Canada, the government of British Columbia and the First Nations, to sign a memorandum of understanding this summer,” McNamee said.
That document would be a statement of intention, but would not be legally binding, McNamee emphasized.
“The only decision it would constitute is that the parties are prepared to move forward to negotiate an agreement. So the focus of it could be confirming a working boundary, confirming the next steps,” McNamee said.
In a letter in April, Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie said there was not yet enough information to make a decision on the park reserve, stating he was in favor of the park “if, and a big if, the feasibility study and negotiating meetings lead to an agreement that covers off the many issues and concerns that Okanagan First Nation people have,” his letter states.
McNamee confirmed establishing a park reserve can only happen with all three major players (Parks Canada, Sylix First Nations and the Province of B.C.) coming to an agreement.
“Chief Louie has indicated that we need to address those issues the community has raised and they will have to come to their own decision at some point in time as to whether or not they have received the information and whether or not they will proceed,” McNamee said. “I’m not going to speculate on what they may or may not do.”
Formal negotiations would follow on the formation of a national parks reserve establishment agreement which would be the “key decision document,” McNamee said.
“That agreement, which could take several years to negotiate, would cover off: what is the final boundary? How would land acquisition proceed? Parks Canada would ensure there’s a statement in there again clarifying expropriation would not be used. It’s really important I stress that point.”
Land will only be acquired on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis McNamee said, adding the Canada National Parks Acts legally prohibits expropriation.
Open houses in four communities are taking place over the next three days in Penticton, Oliver, Keremeos and Osoyoos. In response to concerns about how beholden to feedback Parks Canada would be, McNamee said the park reserve would need to exist in cooperation with locals.
“If a national park reserve is established we, Parks Canada, are in this for the long haul. We have learned from many national parks, in particular in southern Canada, that we cannot manage them in isolation from communities, from stakeholders, from those who make a livelihood,” McNamee said.
“We recognize that there are ecological forces on the ground, be it fire and that, again that we cannot manage in isolation,” McNamee said. “The lesson that we have learned from many of the national parks is that we have to work together with people on the landscape. We realize we have to earn people’s trust in terms of how we do that.”
Wildfire in proposed boundary
A wildfire currently burning at 250 hectares as of Tuesday morning, is occurring within the proposed park boundary.
Boyle said Parks Canada has a highly-trained wildfire management response team.
“We are recognized as a world-class leader in wildfire response,” Boyle said. “It’s anticipated that this park, should it go forward, would have a wildfire response team within it.”
The land falling inside the working boundary would have access to extensive resources including 16 highly-trained fire crews and five national incident management teams, as well as access to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, a resource exchange program which trades both staff and and infrastructure.
“We did meet with local fire departments, we put that invite out and met with one local fire department and two volunteer fire departments and we know that additional resources, especially wildfire response, is welcome in the area,” Boyle said.
Local public information sessions are on May 14 in Oliver from 12 to 8 p.m. at the Venables Theatre, and in Osoyoos on May 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sonora Community Centre.
Meetings are also in Keremeos on May 15 at the Victory Hall from 4 to 8 p.m., and at the Shatford Centre in Penticton from 12 to 8 p.m. on May 16.