Bands dispute right to land near Merritt Info Booth
Efforts to come to a land agreement between the City of Merritt and the Lower Nicola Indian Band were quashed April 4 after the First Nations group announced its intent to develop property along the Coquihalla Highway alone.
But according to Harold Aljam, chief of the Coldwater Indian Band, several First Nations bands have already been planning the development near the Merritt Information Booth with the City for four years.
“We are pursuing the development in a partnership with other bands,” he said, noting the “five Nicola bands and Cook’s Ferry” are included in the project.
“I guess what we’re trying to do is get some government approval before the next [provincial] election,” he said. “There’s a meeting coming up with the government to discuss the project.”
That meeting was tentatively scheduled for this week, and he said plans can move forward once the provincial government is on board.
He said he isn’t aware that the LNIB has put in a land claim to the area.
Both parties claim title to the subject land.
“If anybody is going to develop this land, it’s going to be the LNIB,” said Arnie Narcisse, executive director of the band. “We may welcome joint-venture partners in the future.”
The area, which has previously been called the Gateway project, is rumoured by stakeholders to include a casino and other businesses keyed to tourism. Any solid plans haven’t been released and a timetable is pending. But Aljam said a casino is unlikely, and the area will more likely include a hotel and vehicle service stops.
According to Matt Noble, chief administrative officer for Merritt, the municipality isn’t interested in developing the land and only wants to provide water and sewer services in exchange for tax revenue.
“The fact of the matter is, yes, the City has been approached to provide services to that property, which would be developed by another group of First Nations,” he said.
“The dispute is between First Nations, not us.
“One band probably won’t carry all the weight about what happens on the land. Some of that land is Merritt land and we’ll have a say.”
The City received a document from the LNIB last week expressing the band’s right to the property.
The LNIB has battled in courts over its land title, Narcisse said. “We were bound by a court order for much of last year.”
The Coldwater Band approached the City during the time that the order instructed the LNIB to “stay away from big-ticket items.”
Narcisse said the court order continues to perplex him.
He admitted, though, that the band has had recent issues with meeting quorum during chief and council meetings, which contributed to the court decision.
“[The court order] said that unless we are able to operate on a consensus basis, we were to basically stay away from those discussions,” he said. “In our absence, other bands and the City of Merritt made overtures to the province in regard to the development of an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that would allow them to gain access to that land.”
The LNIB chief and council in 2004 made clear its intent to make a land claim.
Since that time, the band hasn’t continued its efforts, but the current chief and council has said it intends to meet to continue the claim.
“That is adjoining land and, under the policy, we are supposed to have right of first refusal to any Crown land sales or anything of that sort,” Narcisse said. “I think people are assuming they can pursue these kind of initiatives in our absence and we’re telling them that they can’t.
“Once the dust settles, we fully intend to develop there.”
He said the court order could be removed with proper council proceedings.
“We have all eight councillors meeting every Tuesday night again,” he said. “That wasn’t happening during the time of the court order.”
He said court actions that have been filed over the past several years will be reviewed on May 17, and that is a time when he expects serious decisions to be made.
A timeline on the project is contingent on government participation, Aljam added.
The Merritt Information Booth is the second busiest in the province, outside of Vancouver International Airport.