North Cowichan deadlock means public forest consultation remains suspended
First Nations at risk of taking the blame
Public consultation into the future of the Municipal Forest Reserve remains paralyzed after North Cowichan council on Wednesday failed to reach agreement on resumption of the process due to concerns related to First Nations.
Council reached a 3-3 deadlock on a motion by Councillor Rob Douglas to ask consultant Lees & Associates to resume the public consultation, which has been stalled to allow separate secret talks with Cowichan Nation to proceed.
Council has no legal obligation to consult with First Nations on the forest reserve but is doing so in the spirit of reconciliation.
It’s only proper to be respectful to First Nations during this process.
But that does not mean council should disrespect the citizens of North Cowichan who they represent and who rose up against logging practices in the 5,000-hectare forest reserve more than two years ago.
Public engagement has now been delayed a full year — at first due to the coronavirus, and then due to First Nations talks.
The process has become so tangled with delays there is a very real possibility that the forest review may not be completed within council’s four-year mandate.
“It may not get done this term,” Mayor Al Siebring told council. “To me, that’s not the end of the world. We need to give it the proper due process that it deserves and not be bound by electoral timelines or anything else.”
That means the forest reserve could become an election issue during the Oct. 15, 2022, municipal elections — and First Nations a political football.
Councillor Kate Marsh said she’s already heard from a “couple of Tribes people saying they do not want to be put in the position…to be used as an excuse not to start our engagement.”
Douglas’ motion on Wednesday followed an announcement by the Municipality and Cowichan Nation on Tuesday, saying they are “nearing the final stages in their development” of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the forest reserve.
Cowichan Nation is comprised of Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Stz’uminus First Nation, Penelakut Tribe, and Lyackson First Nation.
When completed, the release said, the MOU will “signify the commitment by both parties to continue meeting and discussing activities” in the forest reserve. The public has neither seen nor had an opportunity to comment on the pending MOU.
Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour, listed as a contact person in the announcement, did not respond to a request for comment from sixmountains.ca
Douglas said that given events it is time to restart the public consultation process.
“There is a certain level of urgency with moving forward on this,” he said, noting that University of BC forestry officials working with the municipality cannot proceed without the public’s input.
“I worry…if we do not resume engagement as soon as possible that there’s a real chance we may not complete this review or implement its findings within out mandate.”
“In my view, to stretch this exercise out over a full four years is unacceptable.”
Douglas noted there has been “direct contact” from Cowichan Nation to Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey “that they don’t have any issue with us resuming public engagement” and that should be good enough.
He added that if anyone on council wants to kill the forest review they should directly say so and “don’t try to use local First Nations as a way to justify dragging this thing out….”
Councillor Christopher Justice added it is “irresponsible to the citizens who we represent to delay this any further and it creates a risk that all this will be for naught.”
Councillor Rosalie Sawrie said Douglas’ motion amounted to “jumping the gun” and that she’d prefer to wait until the MOU is a done deal out of respect for First Nations.
Douglas, Marsh and Justice voted to resume the public consultations, while Siebring, Tek Manhas and Sawrie voted against. Debra Toporowski recused herself, since she also sits as a councillor on Cowichan Tribes.
The Municipality is currently drawing on its forest reserve fund to cover ongoing forest management costs. UBC has said the Municipality stands to earn as much or more by selling carbon credits for a standing forest than by logging.
A brief timeline:
February 2019 — council agrees to harvest only remaining 2018 contract obligations and blowdown timber from a recent windstorm.
March 2020 — council suspends public consultations into the forest reserve for 90 days due to the coronavirus.
April 2020 — council rejects Manhas motion to resume logging in the forest reserve while the consultation process takes place.
July 2020 — council pauses public consultations for 60 days pending talks with First Nations.
October 2020 — council agrees to extend the pause “until an agreed-upon way of moving forward is reached during the First Nations consultation process.”
— Larry Pynn March 18, 2021