The apparently inevitable march toward a South Okanagan national park reserve took another long step forward this morning with the signing of a tri-partite memorandum of understanding (MOU).
Federal and provincial representatives and area First Nations chiefs gathered at the Nk’Mip Cultural Centre to sign the MOU, which the parties hope will lead to a final agreement to establish the park.
Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, who admitted “I didn’t realize we had a desert in Canada,” told the 100 or so people at the signing event the MOU represents a significant step following two decades of work toward the goal of a national park.
Cooperation among senior levels of government and First Nations was a major theme of her short speech, pointing out this represents “the first time First Nations are full partners in negotiating” the eventual agreement.
McKenna acknowledged some of the dissenting voices: “We recognize the continuing role of ranchers in the national park reserve.”
The only sign of dissent at the gathering was a lone man in a “No National Park” tee-shirt, who interrupted local MP Richard Cannings’ remarks, claiming there has been no consultation with those opposed to the park.
Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, who hosted the event, reprimanded the heckler for his lack of respect and he wasn’t heard from again.
Provincial environment minister George Heyman said he is hopeful that the negotiations to follow the MOU will be successful and lead to the creation of a park reserve. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.”
He also praised the tri-partite process: “We are developing new models of reconciliation (with First Nations).”
Lower Similkameen Indian Band Chief Keith Crow acknowledged the hard work that has occurred over the past couple of years. “This has been a long process and tough process,” he said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Okanagan Nation Alliance said he is “so thrilled and so happy” at the progress so far. “Respectful dialogue got us here and it will get us to the end.”
In describing First Nations’ connection to the land, Phillip said, “(It is) part of our laws, part of our spirituality to care-take our land.”
The provisions of the MOU signed by McKenna, Louie, Heyman and Crow include:
- The next steps toward the establishment of the national park reserve;
- Details about the proposed park boundary (outlined earlier on ODN);
- Confirmation of no expropriation of private land;
- Protection of provincial lands until national agreement is signed; and
- Details of areas to be negotiated, including cooperative management.
The consensus at the signing ceremony was that negotiating a final agreement will likely take 18 months to two years.