Metro Vancouver's board voted Friday to lodge its objections to a federal policy change that could let First Nations create satellite aboriginal reserves in the heart of local cities.
Critics say Ottawa's proposal to revise its additions-to-reserve policy would let an aboriginal group buy property in any city and then convert it to reserve land, which is exempt from local zoning and other municipal rules.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said a band from northern B.C. could buy up a city block in downtown Vancouver, convert it to reserve and confound normal urban planning.
"The complications surrounding the issue are immense," she told the board. "We have to be very cautious and very guarded."
White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin went further, suggesting a First Nation that buys Pacific Centre mall in downtown Vancouver and gains reserve status for it would suddenly control an "ultra-competitive" special taxation zone where merchants' costs might be much lower, creating uncertainty for nearby properties and businesses.
Baldwin said such a scenario could affect any city, adding he has been approached by First Nations interested in investing in White Rock.
In the past, new land given reserve status generally had to adjoin a band's existing reserves. That restriction would be lifted under the policy now proposed, and bands would get more scope to use it for economic development.
The Metro motion endorsed a staff report that outlines a series of concerns for local cities, including disjointed land-use planning, the loss of taxation base and difficulties recouping the costs of utilities and other services from lands converted to reserve.
The motion was opposed by Vancouver councillors who sought to soften the language, warning the concerns raised were overblown and risked irreparably harming future relations and negotiations with local First Nations.
Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said Metro should strike a tone that's more supportive of First Nations' economic development aims, particularly in light of history.
He described the century-old reserve system as "the crumbs from the plate that were left for First Nations to subsist on when allocations were made in the absence of treaties."
Meggs said the "doomsday scenarios" that have been raised haven't surfaced so far in civic dealings with First Nations in B.C.
"We should approach this in the spirit of problem solving, not fear and trembling."
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan countered Metro is legitimately defending its interests and those of local cities with the federal government, which has little clue of the ramifications.
"I don't think apartheid works," he said, adding Canada's multicultural success has been built on integration.
Corrigan said he prefers to see First Nations "hold land in the same way every other citizen holds land."
Bands with economic power can invest their money like anyone else, Corrigan said, but giving the land they buy a different status "is discriminatory to other citizens."
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said newly created reserves are also exempt from the Agricultural Land Reserve, so the policy could open up a new way to pave over protected farmland.
"They can put just about anything there they want," Steves said. "God knows what will happen."