West Kelowna and Westbank First Nation say it's time to make nice - InfoNews

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West Kelowna and Westbank First Nation say it's time to make nice

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February 26, 2019 - 5:30 PM

KELOWNA - There are few communities anywhere that are as interconnected as much as West Kelowna and Westbank First Nation.

They share services like police, fire, water and sewer and WFN's Indian Reserves 9 and 10 are almost entirely surrounded by West Kelowna boundaries. Despite all that, there’s not much in the way of communication between their governing bodies — a far cry from Kamloops and nearby Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. Officials from both communities today signed a letter of agreement Secwépemc values and culture.

That’s expected to change on April 15, the tentative date for the first council-to-council meeting in some time as the new West Kelowna council has put “Westbank First Nation relationship building” near the top of its priority list for this term.

Defining what was wrong with the old relationship is not something the politicians want to talk about.

“Over a number of years, we tried to get council-to-council meetings,” former West Kelowna councillor Bryden Winsby told iNFOnews.ca. “It was never easy to do. I think, in the last five years, there was only one and only two before that. One was quite uncomfortable.”

Why it was uncomfortable, he wouldn’t say, noting the meeting was held behind closed doors.

The secretive nature of those meetings is the reason former mayor and current councillor Doug Findlater would only say “sometimes there were issues,” but not what those issues were.

Certainly, they all agree that West Kelowna’s opposition to Westbank First Nation getting title to almost 700 hectares of Crown land around its Rose Valley reservoir in exchange for 3.2 hectares for Highway 97 redevelopment was a rough patch in their relationship.

That was back in 2011, after the land was needed as part of the reconstruction of the highway for the new Bennett Bridge. Ultimately that deal didn’t go through.

‘I think there is a lingering resentment on behalf on WFN and I don’t entirely blame them,” Winsby said. “We looked upon it from our standpoint - which was about an equitable agreement on the one hand and also the preservation of our watershed. Not that WFN was threatening to do anything in terms of development. It just struck us that, maybe, it was not appropriate for any sort of development to be taking place there."

He said the relationship between governments depends on the personalities on both councils but would not point any fingers at individuals.

Winsby also pointed out that, while the two bodies function like municipal governments, Westbank First Nation is not answerable to the province or other local governments for its decisions — their path is nation to nation with the federal government first.

From Westbank First Nation’s perspective, they welcome West Kelowna’s change in attitude.

“Right now, I’m really excited with the quick changes I’ve seen (with the new West Kelowna council),” said Tom Konek, a band councillor who has sat on the regional district board since he was first elected in 2016. “Gord (Milsom, West Kelowna’s new mayor) visited Westbank First Nation right after he announced he was running. I was able to meet with him one on one.”

That, and the fact that Milson acknowledged publicly at his inauguration that the meeting was being held on unceded Westbank territory, was just one small step towards building bridges, Konek said.

While Konek was not around for the conflict over the highway lands, he did agree that there were some “strained relationships” dating back to that time.

While Westbank First Nation’s territory is about 1/6 the size of West Kelowna, it also contains many of the strip malls along Highway 97.

That development has benefited West Kelowna by providing employment to its residents.

But there are other developments that have the potential for conflict. in particular, there are major projects on Campbell Road, along the lakeshore south of Bennett Bridge.

While West Kelowna wrestles with the massive Blackmun Village resort proposal (with about 500 residential units) and a proposed expansion of Casa Loma resort, Westbank First Nation has plans for a 275-unit development nearby.

Those only have one road in and a bottle neck at roundabouts next to Highway 97.

“It’s one of those sorts of areas where these council-to-council meetings can begin opening up the vision for what they are planning,” West Kelowna councillor Stephen Johnston said. “I’ve never seen any documents as far as that project goes. I’ve never seen anything on paper on what they‘re planning on doing there.”

And that’s just one of many areas where roads and services can be greatly impacted by decisions made in isolation by either government.

“There could be a lot of mutual benefits,” Johnston said. “Some of the things I’ve heard about in conversation, some of things I’ve heard WFN has in their plans for the next 10 years, we could lean in and build our infrastructure around that. By catching each others’ vision, it’s really an opportunity to make the Westside a very user friendly, very attractive, very economically viable and stable community.”

Whether April’s meeting will be just one of the rare such gathers that have happened over the years or the start of a much closer relationship will take time to determine.

“It's mostly, to me, that we both understand each other’s dream for this community and how it impacts on each other and how we can share in a sort of joint vision,” Johnston said. “It won’t be identical. We’re not looking at saying, ‘here’s our vision for West Kelowna, get on board’ and we’re not looking for them to say ‘here’s our vision, get on board.’ We want to see the strengths of each other’s plans going forward.”

What the council-to-council meeting won’t have is media in attendance, as has been the case in the past.

“I believe Westbank First Nation pretty well has all their meetings in camera,” Milsom said. “So they are going to be organizing the next meeting so that would also be in camera as a result of that.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Population
West Kelowna 33,590
Westbank First Nation 9,000

Land Mass
West Kelowna 30,525 acres
Westbank First Nation 5,340 acres

Businesses
West Kelowna 2,200
Westbank First Nation 400


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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