The public engagement process to determine the future of North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare municipal forest reserve won’t be reinstated until after a Memorandum of Understanding is signed between the municipality and the Cowichan Nation.
Council made the decision at its meeting on March 17 after a split three-three vote saw the motion to reinstate the public engagement process defeated.
Council agreed to pause the public engagement process last summer so that the municipality could consult with the Cowichan Nation, which consists of Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Stz’uminus First Nation, Penelakut Tribe, and Lyackson First Nation, to help North Cowichan better understand their interests in the activities within the MFR, which is on the Cowichan Nation’s traditional lands.
North Cowichan is nearing the final stages in the development of an MOU with the Cowichan Nation, and the motion by Coun. Rob Douglas sought to move forward with the public engagement, which will be used to help inform the technical review of North Cowichan’s forest management practices, and provide a recommendation for future forest management in the MFR.
Douglas said the Cowichan Nation has indicated that, as the MOU is close to being signed, it has no concerns with the reinstatement of the public engagement process.
He said, in his opinion, the review of the MFR is currently at a level of urgency.
“My worry, as well as others, is that if we don’t resume public engagement as soon as possible, there is a real chance that we may not complete the forest review, or implement its findings, within this council’s mandate,” Douglas said.
“In my view, to stretch this exercise out over a full four years is unacceptable.”
Douglas also said there are also financial implications to not moving forward with the public consultations and the review as quickly as possible.
He said that in 2019, North Cowichan had set aside $2.1 million from the proceeds of logging in the MFR in the forest reserve fund and, with harvesting in the MFR currently on hold until the review is complete, North Cowichan has been drawing on the fund to cover the costs of day-to-day operations in the reserve, as well as the review itself.
“If we haven’t completed this review within the year, or the year after, we will have exhausted the money in the fund by 2023,” Douglas said.
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie said she shares Douglas’s sense of urgency, but council did agree to extend the moratorium on the public engagement process until the MOU with the Cowichan Nation has been signed.
“Until we have an agreed upon way of moving forward, we’d be jumping the gun a little [by proceeding with public engagement without the MOU being signed],” she said.
“Until the MOU is completed and signed, this motion is premature.”
Coun. Christopher Justice said while the MOU hasn’t been signed, the agreement has been finalized and it’s time to move ahead.
“There’s no signed document yet, but that’s due to the complexities of the process and the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” he said.
“We have an agreed upon way to move forward. The real danger here is not finishing this work by the end of our term in office.”
Coun. Tek Manhas said he understands there still could be changes to the MOU before it is signed.
“We don’t know what can come back to us, so this motion is premature right now,” he said.
Mayor Al Siebring said the MOU is very close to being finalized and signed, but he’s heard from staff that before it’s actually final and binding, it needs to be ratified by each of the members of the Cowichan Nation.
He said that will take time, and it would be disrespectful to the Cowichan Nation to proceed without the MOU being finalized.
“[The forest review] may not get done this term, but to me that’s not the end of the world,” Siebring said.
“This is a comprehensive process we’re engaged in. If we’re serious about our relationship with our First Nation neighbours, we deserve to give this the proper due process it deserves and not be bound by electoral timelines or anything else.”
The motion failed, with Siebring, Manhas and Sawrie opposed.