VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Opposition to a B.C. chief who was paid almost $1-million last year has virtually dried up, says a band member who had been publicly demanding Ron Giesbrecht’s resignation.
In the days after Mr. Giesbrecht announced his refusal to step down last Friday, members of the small First Nation in suburban Vancouver have learned more about the deal that earned the chief his record pay. In exchange for surrendering the band’s right to a lucrative piece of property on Burke Mountain, the chief collected 10 per cent of an $8-million deal and sent $10,000 cheques to each of the band’s 82 members from the rest of the money.
Ron Jackman, who has led the call for Mr. Giesbrecht to step down, questions whether his fellow Kwikwetlem First Nation members knew what their chief was signing away to the province.
“Along with the $10,000 cheque we got a statement last June telling us that a deal was finalized on Burke Mountain. We never heard the word ‘extinguish,’ we never heard the word ‘abandon,’ it was only called a deal,” Mr. Jackman said.
“Now we know our chief extinguished our rights to that land.”
The chief earned $914,219 last year, according to financial information recently disclosed under the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Most of that came from his $800,000 bonus on the deal, which was received as part of his role as the community’s economic development officer.
While the band and B.C. government have refused to provide specifics on the deal, the Ministry of Finance has confirmed that an “extinguishment of future claims” was at the centre of the $8-million agreement.
The process of abandoning a band’s title and right to a piece of land, known as extinguishment, is a controversial practice in B.C. While modern treaties have required limited extinguishment as part of land swaps, many chiefs refuse to discuss a surrender of land.
“We don’t support the notion of extinguishment. We believe that our indigenous land rights are inherent; they are part of who we are,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “Along with that right goes a responsibility of being a caretaker for the land.”
Mr. Phillip did not want to comment on the situation in Kwikwetlem.
Mr. Jackman, a 39-year-old student at the B.C. Institute of Technology, said Wednesday a petition to oust the chief was suspended.
“We just didn’t have the votes.”
While the band administration had helped Mr. Jackman in the past, he said he’s been barred from the band offices since he started asking questions about the extinguishment.
About 15 kilometres north of the First Nation, the wooded slope of Burke Mountain is at the northeast corner of neighbouring Coquitlam. The Vancouver suburb’s current urban plan calls for extensive building on the mountain over the next three decades, envisioning that 30,000 people will live in the area by the century’s midpoint.
“It’s the last developable tract of land in the Lower Mainland; if you want a new home you’ll come to Burke,” said local real estate agent Rebecca Permack. Homes at the bottom of the mountain already sell for about $1-million.
The sale of 584 acres of public land on Burke Mountain was confirmed in the province’s 2014 budget. More than half of it was sold to local developers. It’s unclear how many of those acres were claimed by the Kwikwetlem band and could have been covered as part of the $8-million deal.
Mr. Philip says he visited the community in the past year and described the local leaders as “humble” and dismissed some of the heated non-First Nations reaction as a “race-based witch hunt.”
“They aren’t the high rollers they’ve been made out to be,” he said.
Calls for comment to the band weren’t returned. In the past, the band has said that it couldn’t comment on the deal due to a non-disclosure agreement required by the province. B.C. officials have said they would release information on the deal with the First Nation’s consent.