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OKANAGAN NATION ALLIANCE THROW ITS STRONG SUPPORT BEHIND NATIONAL PARK
The Okanagan National Alliance (ONA) has released its own feasibility study deeming a national park for the South Okanagan/Lower Similkameen as feasible, while urging the provincial government to re-open talks about the park with the federal government, Parks Canada and all stakeholders.
“It has taken eight years to ensure that the Okanagan Nation is in a position to be able to weigh in on what’s important to the Syilx people and how the future of the land and people should be protected,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chair of the ONA, during a press conference Tuesday morning at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos.
“There is now sufficient confidence to carry forward to the next phase of discussion of a potential park.”
Also attending Tuesday’s announcement was Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Robert Edwards and Gwen Bridge, natural resources manager for the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
In January of 2012, the provincial Liberal government shocked many by withdrawing support for a national park after more than a decade of negotiations between Parks Canada and various stakeholders.
The government was forced to release its own feasibility study several months later, which clearly identified there was strong community and stakeholder support for the establishment of a national park in the South Okanagan.
The Liberal government has remained muted on the national park issue for this area of the province since announcing its withdrawal of support 14 months ago.
The four most southern Indian bands within the ONA – the Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Lower Similkameen Indian Band and Upper Similkameen Indian Band – formed a Syilx Working Group in November of 2010 assessing the feasibility of a potential Syilx/Parks Canada protected area in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen.
That working group was tasked by the ONA Chiefs Executive Council to determine if it was feasible to consider development of a National Park Reserve as part of a broader Syilx vision to protect valued land and cultural values within the ONA traditional terrirotry.
The working group’s final report was officially released Tuesday.
Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells was on hand for the announcement.
The feasibility study called, “Building a Syilx Vision for Protection: Final Report (Assessing Feasibility of a Syilx/Parks Canada Protected Area) is 28 pages in length and features six key recommendations.
• That the ONA advance to the next phase of the national park establishment process, the negotiations phase, as there will be no diminishment to Syilx title and rights and that on all issues, with the exception of issues related to the province’s role, a determination of feasibility was made.
• That the ONA plan for and build appropriate capacity to prepare for future dialogue and negotiations, including but not limited to, Syilx inclusion in a co-operative consensus-based decision-making framework, integrating and showcasing to guide park planning and management and ensuring Syilx access to the land and resources for traditional and cultural purposed within park boundaries.
• A communication and media strategy be developed and implemented in a timely fashion to ensure effective and accurate public communication relative to the Syilx engagement in the national park establishment process, findings and future steps.
• The ONA re-engage the provincial government by sending a letter to the premier and cabinet outlining the findings of the Syilx feasibility process and expected re-engagement from the province in future discussions.
• The ONA seek a similar approach to the park using a Species at Risk Assessment group or committee to initiate solution-based dialogue with Environment Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Parks Canada with clear objectives to build an effective working relationship and to resolve outstanding species at risk implementation issues in the Okanagan-Similkameen prior to the establishment of a national park.
• The ONA continue ongoing strategic communications between the Syilx Chiefs and senior executives, including an agreed upon meeting following the conclusion of the feasibility study.
Bridge said although the current park concept is deemed feasible, it isn’t big enough in size to promote a broader vision for protection of Syilx cultural and ecological integrity in this area. The size and scope of the park would be determined through negotiations with the provincial and federal government, she added.
A social, cultural, environmental and impact assessment has determined a national park has the potential to “provide benefits to the Syilx people and culture, research funding and increased employment opportunities,” she said.
The findings in the feasibility report were determined only after a lengthy community-based approach where members of numerous ONA bands, elders, chiefs and council were involved, said Bridge.
Louie said most of the credit for this report goes to the working group that worked extremely hard for more than two years in gathering the proper information to come to the conclusion a national park would be in the best interest of Syilx people across this region.
The goal now must be to convince the senior levels of government back to the negotiating table to discuss a national park that can work for all stakeholders, said Louie.
It’s going to take a concerted effort from the ONA leadership and municipal mayors and councillors to convince provincial and federal leaders that a national park would be in the best interests of citizens of southern B.C. he said.
“This document shouldn’t be allowed to just sit there and collect dust,” he said.
Phillips said all supporters of the national park, including First Nation leaders, must continue to work together to ensure the B.C. government commits to starting talks once again about a national park for the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen.
The ONA will be sending a detailed letter to Premier Christy Clark in the coming days highlighting the feasibility study and its key recommendations and urging the government to re-open discussions as quickly as possible, said Phillips.
The next phase of negotiations will provide additional information and clarity on key issues such as Syilx inherent rights relating to harvesting and hunting, collaborative decision-making and the inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge in park management and decision-making, said Bridge.
Edwards said First Nation leaders across the region were “insulted” by the provincial and federal government during initial negotiations relating to a national park dating back several years.
The feasibility study approved by the ONA ensures the concerns and rights of First Nation people will remain a priority during any further negotiations relating to the national park, he said.
Phillips said he’s confident the provincial government will be willing to meet with ONA leaders in the coming months to resume talks about the national park. A copy of the feasibility study is available at www.okanagannation.com.