The uncertainty surrounding the transfer of a portion of the Kettle Valley Railway Trail to the Penticton Indian Band sparked a feeling of fear from some at Wednesday’s public meeting in West Bench.
“This is a very touchy issue between everybody,” said Chief Jonathan Kruger. “A lot of people use the (trail) right now and it’s just that fear of change and we just have to get past that fear and come to some understanding where we can all live together because we are living together right now. I’m sure we can work together and live together and prosper together.”
The six parcels of land, roughly 139 acres, were expropriated under the Indian Act from the Penticton Indian Reserve in the early 1900s for the KVR line, which was eventually sold to CPR. The CPR decommissioned the railway line in the 1980s, and the two sides have been in court ever since, with the band arguing that because the land is no longer being used it should be returned to the reserve. In 1985, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered the land returned to the PIB.
In the past couple of months Indian and Northern Affairs Canada told local governments they are ready to start the process of transferring the land back. INAC representatives said Wednesday that as part of the addition to reserve process, inquiry letters were sent out to the RDOS, City of Penticton, other First Nations and municipalities within a 70-kilometre radius. It is up to those governmental bodies to consult with their constituents and members and respond. INAC said the RDOS did just that for its residents in a package that included all of the public concerns, petitions and comments in addition to the RDOS letter.
Kathy Hankin, INAC representative, couldn’t quell any of the concerns about future land use, stating that the environmental condition of the land is currently under investigation and that it must be satisfactory for the use that the band wants for it.
“Once that is determined it will enable the band to determine the uses. With a corridor like that, I don’t know yet because we haven’t had discussions about what those uses are. Chief Kruger has said he would be willing to sit down and listen to the potential uses that you might have for it. Legal access roads all have to be taken care of before its addition to reserve. So, yes the use has to be determined and it has to be an appropriate use for the condition of the land,” said Hankin.
INAC representatives said there have been “very positive negotiations to date” with Ministry of Highway for the road areas and they aren’t anticipating any issues.
One male resident said after building a home and life in West Bench and having property some 30 feet away from the KVR Trail, he was worried about what restrictions the PIB will have on their land.
“I have no problem if you have exactly the same zoning, exactly the same height restrictions, exactly the same land uses, exactly the same bylaws that we have to deal with as members of the regional district that you do not have to deal with on reserve land. We have all built our property to view the lake and valley and whatever you do on that railbed would have an adverse affect to not only our properties, our lifestyle, but our property values,” said the resident. “I would not have a problem with you if you had the exact same restrictions as the regional district.”
While a number of West Bench residents felt their questions were not being answered by the panel, which included Chief Kruger, Coun. Joan Phillip, five INAC members and lawyer Raymond Richardson, there was an equal amount who were in support of the land transfer.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we are here because of litigation or because of legal issues. I think it would be quite a different meeting if we were talking about KVR and the land in question and how as neighbours we can come together and use it. I think the question of ownership raises fears because it is so legally bound and people are put into a process that is adversarial,” said a West Bench woman. “I don’t think it really matters to me who owns it, I think it’s about living together and I see this as a real opportunity.”
Phillip said they are currently planning a forum specifically for the regional district and District of Summerland, having already set aside a number of dates that are going to be forwarded to those governmental bodies.
The forum would be to educate about the history of the community as well as the legal and political history.