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Future of North Cowichan council potentially linked to Cowichan Tribes election

Councillor Debra Toporowski among nine running for Chief

The outcome of the Cowichan Tribes upcoming election could change the face of North Cowichan council.

Debra Toporowski sits as an elected member of both Cowichan Tribes and North Cowichan councils and is among nine candidates seeking election to a two-year term as Chief on Dec. 3.

Asked by sixmountains.ca whether she would continue her position on North Cowichan council should she win, Toporowski replied: “If successful in becoming Chief, I will reassess in January.” She is also running as a councillor.

North Cowichan’s Chief Administrative Officer, Ted Swabey, said Wednesday that council would not have to hold a byelection “if a vacancy occurred after January 1, 2022,” and the number of remaining members remained five or more.

“The decision to hold an election would be a decision of Council,” Swabey added.

Council currently consists of the Mayor and six councillors.

The next BC municipal election is Oct. 15, 2022.

A total of five Cowichan Tribes councillors, including Stephanie Atleo, Cindy Daniels, Howie George, and Stuart Pagaduan, are challenging Chief Chip Seymour’s re-election bid. Also running are Lydia Hwitsum, Christopher Alphonse, and Fred Roland.

It’s unusual for a First Nations councillor to also sit on a neighbouring municipal council.

“It has to be incredibly unique,” said BC Green Party MLA Adam Olsen, representing Saanich North and the Islands.

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Olsen is a member of Tsartlip First Nation who served two terms as a Central Saanich councillor before his election to the provincial legislature in 2017.

He told sixmountains.ca that when he was first elected in Central Saanich in 2008 he was aware of “only three self-identified First Nations” holding similar positions.

It is more common, Olsen said, for First Nations that sign treaties to be afforded seats on regional governments. For example, John Jack is a Huu-ay-aht councillor who chairs Alberni-Clayoqout Regional District.

Olsen said that on a few occasions during his time on municipal council he sought legal advice on whether he might be in a conflict of interest because of his relationship with Tsartlip First Nation, but he never had to recuse himself. Non-indigenous councillors may have their own conflict issues, related, say, to property development.

Olsen said he’s never heard of an elected Chief also sitting as an elected municipal councillor, but said he believes that cross-over in general is a good thing in terms of building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

In October 2020, Toporowski recused herself from a North Cowichan vote on consultation with First Nations related to the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve.

She also did not participate in a recent council decision to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with local First Nations on the forest reserve.

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— Larry Pynn, Nov. 3, 2021