Thursday, July 05, 2007

The battle for a sacred golf course

It's almost comical, like something out of a movie, the way a golf course in a posh Vancouver neighbourhood has become a flashpoint in First Nations' treaty efforts.
The province is in secretive talks about turning the University Golf Club over to the Musqueam band, which has outstanding claims over a lot of expensive Lower Mainland real estate.
The neighbours and golfers, in an area where $1 million gets you a starter home, are shocked and outraged.
One observed that some golfers had so loved the course that they had their ashes scattered over the fairways.
If the Musqueam developed the land, it would be like desecrating a burial site, he said, adding that First Nations don't like it when someone digs up the bones of their ancestors to clear the way for some condos or a new road.
Can't you see that in a movie, the actor — I’m thinking Gene Hackman, for some reason — making his case for the sacred spiritual nature of the course, as a group dressed in black golf clothes scatters someone's ashes beside the eighth tee?
The golf course - open to the public, with rates of $70 for a weekend round - has been a point of contention for years.
The Musqueam and other urban First Nations involved in treaty talks have a problem. The settlement model is based on compensation in land and cash.
But the federal and provincial governments have little land available to hand over in urban areas. First Nations get edgy when any of it is transferred out of their hands.
The Campbell government did exactly that with the University Golf Club in 2003. Despite the Musqueam's objections, and knowing the band was eying it as part of any future settlement, the province sold the course to the University of B.C. for $11 million.
It looked bad. And in 2005 the B.C. Court of Appeal said it was bad. The government had an obligation to consult before selling the land, the court ruled. It gave the province and Musqueam two years to negotiate a settlement. It's not hard to understand why people who golf on the beautiful course or use it for quiet walks would be disappointed it ends up as a housing development. (The Musqueam have said if they get ownership, the land will remain a golf course until 2033.)
But their arguments are so strange as to be alarming. The course does offer a lovely green space. But the area already has an extraordinary amount of parkland, thanks to the lovely UBC campus. (And some of those complaining live in houses on land carved from that space for development.)
The golf-course defenders - ignoring the fact that the Musqueam have a legal say in all this - also say the provincial government should just offer the band cash in return for giving up their claim to the golf course. One opponent fighting any transfer is Martin Zlotnik, a Gordon Campbell backer and big-time Liberal fundraiser. He says the Liberals could just "write a cheque" to cover the cost. "The government prints money, don't forget that," he said in a radio interview.
But, as Campbell likely reminded, him the government doesn't print money; it collects from people and companies.
And the land is worth something over $300 million if it’s developed. The idea that someone in Trail or Prince George should pay higher taxes to preserve a golf course for a largely affluent group in a ritzy Vancouver neighbourhood is just bizarre.
The other interesting question this affair raises is the depth of urban residents' commitment to treaties. Polls generally found them supportive when the land likely to be transferred was far away. This group isn't so keen now the issue is closer to home. (Rural residents have so far accepted the need to transfer land as part of treaty settlements.)
Still, it would make an awfully good movie.
Footnote: The golf course is in Campbell's own riding and he's been criticized by constituents, especially for secrecy around the land negotiations (though that's normal in these kinds of talks). The whole affair shows how much Campbell's approach to First Nations has changed in four years. In 2003, he ignored the Musqueam's claims and pretty much gave the land away; now, he's looking to ensure the band gets the property.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Battle brewing over oil-tanker traffic

An odd public debate has broken out over the issue of oil and gas tankers sailing through B.C.'s coastal waters.
The topic isn't that strange. You can expect conflict over any activity, from tanker traffic to offshore oil and gas development, which involves potential risk to the coast.
What's weird is that this debate isn't about the principle. It's about whether tanker traffic is currently banned by the federal government.
It's not, says Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, MP for a riding that includes a Victoria suburb and some of the Gulf Islands.
"There actually is no moratorium for traffic coming into the West Coast," he says. The Conservative government will only acknowledge an "a voluntary exclusion zone" that applies to U.S. tankers carrying Alaska oil to Washington State. The American companies have been willing to stay out of B.C. waters, but there's nothing to say they couldn't start sailing through tomorrow, according to Lunn.
David Anderson disagrees. He made his political mark by championing the tanker issue and oversaw the moratorium as environment minister for the federal Liberals. He says the tanker ban has been in place since 1972.
NDP MPs and MLAs have taken the same position; so have most environmental groups.
Most of the evidence appears to be on their side, although there is no cabinet order or legislation setting out the ban.
When the federal Natural Resources Department commissioned a study on offshore oil and gas in 2003, the terms of reference acknowledged the ban.
"In 1972, the Government of Canada imposed a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic through Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound due to concerns over the potential environmental impacts. The moratorium subsequently extended to include oil and gas activities."
It seems clear. And people who say the ban exists note that many federal government documents acknowledge the ban and none - prior to the Conservatives being elected - claim it doesn't exist.
The silliest argument that the ban doesn't exist is an industry-lobby group's claim that because barges and small tankers have continued to carry fuel from Vancouver to coastal communities, there can't be a ban. The moratorium or voluntary exclusion or whatever wasn't meant to stop Bella Bella from getting gas to run generators.
The whole debate largely misses the main point. Whether there is or isn't a moratorium now, should there be?
Lunn's position is significant in that context. If a moratorium exists, then the Conservatives would have to justify lifting the ban. If there is no ban, then opponents of tanker traffic would have to justify imposing one.
The B.C. government comes down somewhere in the middle. It acknowledges the ban, but says it only applies to tankers passing through B.C. waters without.
That's a critical distinction. There hasn't been any other kind of tanker traffic in the past. B.C. hasn't imported or exported oil or gas products through its ports.
But the Alberta oil sands could change that. There are five pipeline proposals to link Alberta with Prince Rupert or Kitimat. Some would transport crude; some would send condensate, used to produce the heavy oil, to Alberta.
And they would all require a steady stream of tankers heading in and out of port several times a week.
That's obviously a risk; look at the Queen of the North. But life is a series of calculations about risk and reward. How many jobs would the pipeline projects provide? How much revenue could the government collect? What can be done to ensure tanker safety?
Those are the question that need to be answered before tankers are given permission to operate in B.C.'s coastal waters, no matter whether there is now a ban or not.
And politicians need to listen to the public before any decision is made.
Footnote: The tanker traffic has already started. Fourteen tankers have been allowed through in the last 18 months delivering condensate to Kitimat. From there it's shipped to Alberta's tar sands. The tanker issue has been politically significant in the past. It could hurt the Conservatives in close B.C. races in the next election.