Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell chats with contractors at the groundbreaking of Memorial Park Thursday morning. (Aaron Hinks photo)

Memorial Park work on hold following cease-and-desist from Semiahmoo First Nation

White Rock leaders agree to investigate archeological needs for work on traditional SFN territory

Work on White Rock’s long-planned upgrade to Memorial Park has been put on hold while the city investigates the protocols of acquiring an archeological permit to excavate land deemed the historical territory of the Semiahmoo First Nation.

The decision was reached in an unanticipated broad-ranging discussion between members of White Rock council and the First Nation council Thursday, following SFN’s presentation of a cease-and-desist order that morning at what would have been a formal groundbreaking ceremony at the waterfront site.

The impromptu discussion also promised resolution of long-standing issues over the city’s provision of water and sewer services to the reserve and the removal of White Rock infrastructure, including the pump station, from Semiahmoo land.

Notable among understandings reached were that the city will give written notice of an 18-month extension of providing water to the reserve (suggested by the City of Surrey, which will ultimately provide water services to SFN).

SFN Chief Harley Chappell said, given that understanding, that the nation will set terms over the next two weeks under which White Rock workers will be given access to the infrastructure.

In the discussion, described as “a road map for moving forward” by Chappell, it was agreed that White Rock city manager Dan Bottrill would contact the BNSF Railway – technically owners of the waterfront property on which the Memorial Park work will take place – to establish whether the city or BNSF would apply for the archeological permit.

SFN archeological manager Don Welsh told the members of both councils that the archeological permit process has been standard for work undertaken by BNSF in White Rock and South Surrey in which artifacts and historic burials might be disturbed. Given past experience with local sites, he said, it was likely that either disturbed or undisturbed burial sites would be found, in which case work would have to be halted while remains were removed for reburial.

One day following the meeting, however, two White Rock councillors have declared the extraordinary meeting was “illegal” under the provisions of the Community Charter.

Both Coun. Helen Fathers and Coun. David Chesney – neither of whom attended – say they weren’t phoned or texted to request their presence at the discussion which took place in a basement meeting room at White Rock City Hall.

And while both emphasize that they enthusiastically support moving ahead to resolve issues between the city and SFN, they say they feel disrespected and marginalized by their exclusion – which, both said in phone calls to Peace Arch News Friday, only adds to the disrespect that they feel the SFN has been shown with regard to the Memorial Park project.

Said Fathers: “It’s disrespectful to our level of government.”

Said Chesney: “The mayor and the chief administrative officer made no effort to reach either me or Coun. Fathers.”

Contact by PAN, Baldwin said that while Chesney and Fathers were invited to the groundbreaking, “I had no idea where they were… There was no time to chase them down. I wanted to get something done with SFN.”

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, at the park site, Chappell told the dignitaries expecting the groundbreaking ceremony that the city must follow an archeological permit process before work on the site continued.

“We’re not against development or the city going ahead in its progress,” Chappell said.

Moments earlier, after tense exchanges with Chappell and SFN councillors Joanne Charles and Roxanne Charles, Baldwin suggested a meeting on the spot.

“We have a quorum,” Baldwin said, glancing at White Rock Couns. Bill Lawrence, Grant Meyer, Lynne Sinclair and Meghan Knight, seated under a tent waiting for the ceremony to begin. When SFN council members balked at a meeting at the site, Baldwin suggested moving the discussion to city hall.

“I’m inviting you to a meeting at city council chambers right now,” he said .

Fathers and Chesney allege that contravenes Section 126 of the Community Charter, .

“As mayor, you can’t just turn around and say ‘I’ve got a quorum of council – let’s go’,” Fathers told PAN, adding that while, under emergency conditions, usual notice of a meeting can be waived, it requires a unanimous vote from council.

“I feel like I’m completely marginalized. And anything that did happen is illegal and irrelevant – it doesn’t matter what was said.”

Chesney agreed.

“You can’t call a meeting like that,” he said. “(The mayor) could have been sitting in Sawbucks (Pub) and have four members there and say he has a quorum – it’s illegal.”

Chesney underlined that he is “absolutely” in favour of resolving issues with SFN.

“I hope this doesn’t derail negotiations with them.”

However, Baldwin told PAN he viewed Thursday’s impromptu session as “a conversation – not a formally constituted meeting.”

“It was a good discussion. We have an understanding on how to proceed. We’re trying to set up a formal meeting for Oct. 5.”

For his part, Chappell said Friday that he felt the meeting had developed “a good little road map” for moving forward that was witnessed by “lots of people.”

“As to the internal processes for (White Rock’s) council meetings, it’s not my place to comment on that,” he said.

“We came to that meeting in good faith and, from our end, we’ll continue on in good faith in that direction in the essence of building a relationship.”

During Thursday’s meeting – which was attended by a PAN reporter at the agreement of participants, omce invited by Baldwin – air was cleared on a number of long-standing issues between SFN and the city.

Emotions ran high at some points of the more than two-hour meeting, particularly as both sides retraced communications the previous year that had led to tensions between them.

Bottrill – the only city staff member in attendance – said he had been “shocked” when, following what he and council members remembered as a “convivial meeting” between council and SFN councillors in March 2016, the city received a letter from the nation’s lawyers demanding removal of city infrastructure.

“At that point it became a legal battle,” he said.

But SFN councillor Joanne Charles said the letter was only intended as an attempt to formalize and move ahead negotiation points that seemed stalled after “a year and a half” of inaction by former city staff members.

Chappell said a subsequent city letter in August 2016 – giving the SFN 18 months to find an alternative water supply – was “a noose around our neck.”

“You also have a noose around our neck with the infrastructure,” Baldwin said. “The trick is to exchange nooses.”

Working out a formal municipal agreement for water and sewer services was also part of Thursday’s understanding.

It was evident some philosophical differences linger, however.

While Chappell noted Baldwin’s intercession to help gain federal funding for improvements to water and sewer services, and Roxanne Charles praised Baldwin for comments on the significance of the nation during recent Canada 150 ceremonies, Charles also reacted to comments from Baldwin in which he said a difficulty in agreements between the city and the nation is that the nation is in Surrey and not in White Rock.

She said this is “an attitude” on the part of the city that ignored the historic fact that White Rock is sited within traditional Semiahmoo territory.

“That’s an erasure of our history,” she said. “We’re not part of you – you’re part of us.”