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Storseth voices concerns over federal government's proposed changes to ATR policy

Jan 28, 2014 12:00 pm | By Ryan McCracken | St. Paul Journal

Westlock-St. Paul Conservative MP Brian Storseth recently voiced concerns over his party’s proposed changes to the Addition to Reserves (ATR) policy, suggesting that the new policy is “fundamentally unfair.”

An addition to reserve is “a parcel of land that is added to the existing land base of a First Nation or is used to create a new reserve. The legal title to the land is set apart for the use and benefit of the First Nation making the application. Land can be added to reserve in rural or urban settings,” according to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website.

Storseth argued that the proposed changes would make it easier for reserves to purchase land in fee-simple and then convert that land into reserve status.

“As it currently stands, First Nations communities can buy land in what’s called fee-simple, it’s the same way you or I buy land. For instance, Kookum’s Bakery in St. Paul, a couple of years ago was bought by Goodfish Lake, and was bought in fee-simple. They operate a business, which is an economic development opportunity, and that’s fine, because they have to abide by all the land use bylaws that the town has, they have to abide by the environmental assessment standards and the environmental assessment act that the province has, and they have to pay taxes on it,” said Storseth. “What the Additions to Reserve policy does, is it allows them to take this land in fee-simple, and turn it into a reserve. So what you would have in that instance would be an urban reserve, where they own that building and they no longer have to pay any taxes, don’t have to do any environmental assessment, and basically none of the town’s laws or bylaws would apply to them, which I think is unfair.”

Storseth added the current policy states that land to be converted to reserve status must be contiguous to the reserve, but the new policy will allow reserves to expand into areas that are not contiguous to their borders.

“The new policy would allow (reserves) to put anything, technically, that’s in their traditional land area . . . So a place like Goodfish would then be able to expand, and rather than say St. Paul, maybe they want to buy some land in Cold Lake because it’s growing a little quicker, and then turn that into a reserve status. To me that’s fundamentally unfair.”

The current ATR policy also states that land can be converted into reserve status for the purposes of legal obligations and agreements, community, additions or specific claims tribunal decisions. However, Storseth said under the new policy, economic development has been added as a purpose for additions to reserves.

“The new policy is far more ambiguous, and the reasoning for the policy is because none of those three above (legal obligations, community additions and tribunal decisions) include the stated reason for the policy as economic development,” said Storseth. “When you look at something and look at doing it for economic development reasons that’s a pretty wide swath. It’s in very ambiguous terms.”

There is currently an example of this taking place with Onion Lake Cree Nation, who has purchased land in the County of Vermilion with plans of converting it to reserve status.

“(Onion Lake First Nation) purchased land in Vermilion County, right in the middle of the new industrial development that the county has put together . . . the county will have to pay for the roads, pay for the water and all the services for that development. The First Nations community bought the land in fee-simple and now they’re trying to turn it into reserve status,” said Storseth. “One of the keys here is the lack of any meaningful consultation. In the instance that we found in Vermilion County . . . there hasn’t been enough meaningful consultation where the county feels comfortable with some of their prime land turning into reserve status. They get no revenue off of it, and they have no say over what goes there.”

County of Vermilion Reeve Daryl Watt confirmed that the land was purchased by Onion Lake from a private owner, and expressed his belief that it will cause considerable consequences for the county.

“It has substantial consequences because we lose the ability to designate what that land will be used for, we lose the zoning ability on it. The other thing that happens is, once they turn it into reserve status, if they have businesses on that land, they pay no federal, provincial or municipal taxes on it,” said Watt. “They can make commitments today but the future councils don’t have to live by those commitments. It’s a big concern for us because it’s right dead in the middle of what you’d call our industrial or commercial area. It’s also just on the very southwest corner of Blackfoot Hamlet. If we lose control of zoning and what’s going to happen with that land, it has big consequences for us.”

Storseth said he sees no issue with allowing reserves to purchase land in fee-simple, especially when it is done for the purposes of community expansion, but that his issue lies in the process of turning that land into reserve status, and the lack of consultation required.

“There is very little, if any, consultation required of the municipality in which that land is currently occupied . . . If we’re going to make changes to anything to do with First Nations it says in our constitution of Canada that we need to consult with First Nations, and there have been several court cases that have established what consultation means,” he said. “In this process, consultation seemingly only means that they need to let you know that it’s going to happen. I believe that municipalities have a right to be consulted right from the outset of when you’re thinking about turning it into reserve status, because this obviously is going to affect municipalities significantly.”

Representatives from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, and Onion Lake First Nation were unavailable for comment on the issue.

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