The Okanagan Indian Band insists it’s not ordering communities to abandon buying a rail corridor.
The band has filed documents in B.C. Supreme Court over its claim to the Commonage lands, which includes the Canadian National line along Kalamalka Lake.
“It’s unfortunate it’s come to this but we make no apologies when it comes to protecting the legal interests of our membership,” said Chief Byron Louis.
However, Louis says the band’s actions should not be interpreted as placing demands on the Regional District of North Okanagan, Lake Country and Kelowna which are trying to buy the corridor.
“Their decisions are their decisions just like they are for us. If they believe what they are doing is right, that is their decision,” he said.
“We have never said we are opposed to any activity there but we are opposed to the sale of the rail corridor. We have not wavered since 1888.”
A Commonage reserve was formed in 1877 but a decade later, the reserve was scrapped by government officials without the involvement of the band.
Louis says that if the corridor is not used for rail transport, it should revert to reserve.
“Put simply, CN cannot sell what they do not own, and the municipalities cannot purchase lands that are not CN’s to sell.”
However, the communities say they are committed to purchasing the corridor.
“We are proceeding on what has always been our understanding, that CN owns the land outright and therefore has the legal right to sell the land,” said Doug Gilchrist, Kelowna’s divisional director of community planning and real estate.
“We are proceeding on the understanding that the Commonage claim is a matter between the federal government and First Nations and it should have no bearing on the acquisition of land between a private company and a local government.”
Gilchrist added that if the corridor is acquired, the regional partners will abide by any legal decisions issued by the court.
The band’s court action could impact the April 25 Lake Country referendum to borrow $2.6 million to purchase the corridor.
“There’s some uncertainty that we can actually purchase the land,” said Mayor James Baker, who is still urging residents to support borrowing funds.
“What we’re asking for is the opportunity to borrow $2.6 million and if there’s a yes vote, we then have the ability to borrow. If it (band) goes before the courts, it could be a long time before we get to exercise voter assent.”
Greater Vernon officials are reluctant to comment on the band’s legal actions or the potential consequences for the land deal.
“We are allowing the process to go ahead,” said Juliette Cunningham, Greater Vernon Advisory Committee chairperson.
Louis insists the federal government hasn’t been responsible over land claims and it’s creating a rift between First Nations and local jurisdictions.
“They like to leave it up to the courts to resolve because they lack the political will to move ahead,” he said.