The Little Campbell River, shown here at the point where it empties out into Semiahmoo Bay, runs through the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve. (File photo)

Semiahmoo First Nation emotions run high as water deadline looms

Councillor Roxanne Charles says tweet – expressing personal opinion – intended to ‘offer perspective’

The reality hits Roxanne Charles when she runs her bath: come February, it’s possible nothing will happen when she turns on that same water tap.

It’s a reality the entire Semiahmoo First Nation is facing, following word a year ago from the City of White Rock that its water supply to the reserve would be cut off “within… 18 months.”

After living on a boil-water advisory for the past 12 years – and with approximately half of reserve residents having to get their water trucked in – the notice struck a chord, Charles acknowledged.

And when recent Peace Arch News letter-to-the-editor-writer Michael King, in lamenting the decision-making of White Rock city council, commented that “the city that I moved to in 1992 is being eroded away,” she couldn’t help but respond.

“Imagine ur land stolen b4 u the whole hill logged 4 a city whom dumped garbage on ur land, contaminated ur bay then cut off ur water supply,” Charles tweeted on Aug. 19.

This week, Charles – an SFN councillor and lifetime resident of the reserve lands bordering White Rock – elaborated.

“For me, the water is one of our last resources left, and that’s been really heavy and emotional,” she said.

She described herself as “vocal” on the issues, but emphasized that her tweet – as with other statements the 38-year-old artist and mother of two makes in the community – was made on a personal level, and not on behalf of the band.

“There is a frustration, but it’s more about community and humanity,” she said of the water situation. “The last thing I want to do is create anger. I was just offering another perspective.”

Her art, she added, is another outlet. (Her recent PeqOles exhibit at the White Rock Museum is an example, and some of that work is currently featured at the Pop Uptown Gallery for Semiahmoo Arts Canada 150 show.)

Meeting with PAN and Charles Monday, SFN Chief Harley Chappell said the tweet was reflective of the high emotions that have been fuelled by the water situation.

The SFN is “a community of people at risk” of losing a basic necessity that the majority take for granted, he said.

“It leads to all kinds of things… all sorts of pressures.”

Charles’ tweet did not raise concerns for him as a leader, he said.

“It can’t,” Chappell told PAN. “At the end of the day, human nature is to have emotion.”

Relief was among emotions expressed by Chappell and band councillor Joanne Charles last week, in announcing that the City of Surrey had voted unanimously July 24 to negotiate a Municipal Type Service Agreement for the provision of storm water, water and sanitary sewer to the SFN.

Monday, Chappell described the decision as “monumental.”

It came 10 months after band leaders initially appealed to the city for an emergency connection – following the White Rock notice – and just a month after the two councils met in June. Also in June, SFN was among 33 First Nation communities named to receive federal funding to help with water infrastructure.

Chappell said funding for the $10-million project through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has been approved, pending “a few internal processes” that must be completed. And while there is still much work to be done, construction is anticipated to get underway next spring.

“Hopefully, by the end of next summer, we’ll be talking about other things than sewer and water,” Chappell said.

He noted he has received verbal confirmation from White Rock officials that the water supply will not be terminated prior to the connection to Surrey being established.

City manager Dan Bottrill told PAN Tuesday that while that decision has not yet been made by council, “some verbal conversations” had taken place between Chappell and Mayor Wayne Baldwin indicating “that the city would be open to extending that timeline.”

Bottrill described Surrey’s decision to work with SFN as “good news.”

Chappell, who was elected chief in December, said he is optimistic about the band’s relationship with the City of White Rock – “that we’ll be able to resolve our issues and move forward.”

Bottrill agreed that things are improving.

A council-to-council meeting – the first since March of 2016 – is anticipated to take place in October, and Chappell is hopeful the leaders will be able to address a number of “miniscule” issues.

He would not elaborate on those issues, but cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

“The relationship between neighbouring First Nations and local municipalities is slated to be government to government and should be respected as such,” he said.

 

Tracy Holmes photo Semiahmoo Chief Harley Chappell and band councillor Roxanne Charles.

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