B.C. introduces law allowing development on federal First Nations reserves

VICTORIA – The British Columbia government introduced legislation Thursday that it says will soothe the fears of investors and clear the way for aboriginal entrepreneurship on reserve land.

The legislation will mean provincial laws and regulations will apply to commercial, industrial and residential developments on aboriginal reserves.

Provincial building code and environmental regulations currently don’t apply on the province’s reserves, fostering an anything-goes atmosphere that limits economic development, said Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak.

“This is really an historic opportunity,” Polak said at a news conference shortly after introducing Bill 43, The First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act Implementation Act.

“It doesn’t solve all the issues with respect to reserve land, and there are many, but it certainly takes us a long way forward.”

Polak said the legislation pairs with a federal law introduced in 2005 to close gaps in regulations on reserve and to stimulate economic development. Under the Constitution, reserves are a federal responsibility.

She said the B.C. law is currently aimed at two major aboriginal developments — a liquefied natural gas plant at Kitimat and a condominium project on Vancouver’s north shore — but the legislation can be applied to other future projects.

The proposed LNG export facility on Haisla Nation reserve lands near Kitimat in northwest B.C., is one of three such projects the B.C. government is touting for the area.

The legislation ensures the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission will be the primary regulator of the Haisla facility.

The second project is a 600-unit, four-tower condominium development in West Vancouver on Squamish Nation reserve land near its Capilano reserve.

The condominium residents won’t get fee-simple ownership of their properties, but the legislation, coupled with the federal law, allows them to register their leases with the provincial Land Title Office.

Polak said tying aboriginal developments to the earlier federal law and the proposed B.C. legislation offers certainty for investors and help in generating capital for the projects.

“This offers them an opportunity to be in a much more amicable and workable relationship with the surrounding communities,” she said.

West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith said in a statement the city and Squamish Nation will work together to develop a service agreement that is fair and agreeable to both communities.

Polak said the proposed law does not attempt to skirt B.C.’s 20-year-old treaty-negotiation process, but it does allow First Nations and governments to work together on economic projects while treaty talks continue.

“There are 203 First Nations in this province and not all of them are interested in reaching a treaty, and yet as a province, we are completely interested in resolving our unresolved issues with First Nations and in seeing First Nations able to participate meaningfully in the economy,” she said.

Scott Fraser, the opposition New Democrat’s aboriginal relations critic, said the proposed law could stimulate economic activity on reserves, but many First Nations are already involved in economic development.