Harmac won’t bow out of Nanaimo water talks

Snuneymuxw band plans court action 

Tamara Cunningham, Daily News
Harmac will continue water license discussions despite pending law suits.

The Harmac pulp mill will not bow out of water-sharing discussions with the City of Nanaimo, despite threats of an impending lawsuit.

Snuneymuxw First Nation officials announced Monday it will launch court action to challenge the lawfulness of water licences held by Harmac, owned by Nanaimo Forest Products. Action has been threatened since early February, when Chief Douglas White believed a water-sharing agreement would be struck between the city and Harmac without the consent or involvement of the band.

He claims the licences have been infringing on First Nation water rights for years, leading to “thirdworld” conditions on the No. 2 reserve near Cedar.

White said he was assured by Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan at a press conference Feb. 6 no deal would be signed without the band’s approval.

On Monday, Ruttan wrote in a letter that the Snuneymuxw would be consulted in good faith but council was not prepared to give them a “veto” on the final agreement.

Harmac president Levi Sampson said the uproar over the letter and resulting court action will not deter discussions about a water agreement.

He also remains confident the company is “on strong footing” with its water licences.

“We are still willing to enter into negotiations if this is something that makes sense for the region and will help take care of future water needs,” he said.

“Right now we are still in the testing stages to see if this is feasible.”

Sampson sees a partnership with the city as a “win-win” scenario, providing company stakeholders with profit and likely giving the city a less-expensive and more environmentallyfriendly alternative to building a $60-million dam.

There are only two options to expand the water supply, including a water-sharing agreement and new dam in the South Fork watershed, according to city officials. They’ve been scrambling to start on a solution, calling the situation “urgent” with the population expected to outgrow out the current supply by 2020.

Discussions about cost will begin in the next two months. Neither side is prepared to stop talks in the wake of court action. Mayor John Ruttan calls the Snuneymuxw’s announcement “impulsive” when negotiations about water-sharing haven’t even begun and Sampson says his company had done no wrong.

This year is also the first time since assuming the helm at Harmac in 2008, that Sampson has heard the company’s water rights challenged by the Nanaimo band.

In a statement, White said a lawsuit will challenge the NFP and the province about existing water licences for the Nanaimo River which are in violation of the Douglas Treaty of 1854.

White said they want to claim their territorial rights, which would allow them to fish and use water currently tied up in waterlicences.

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