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Williams Lake city council wants say on First Nations cannabis operation, chief disappointed

Williams Lake Indian Band is moving forward with cannabis project on South Mackenzie Avenue
The Williams Lake Indian Band is proposing to construct a micro cannabis cultivation facility at 1145 Mackenzie Avenue South in Williams Lake. (Rebecca Dyok photo)

Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Willie Sellars said he was disappointed by remarks made at a regular city council meeting in Williams Lake last month in relation to its proposed micro cannabis cultivation facility on reserve lands within the city.

“What is clear is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the jurisdiction and authority of First Nations government, and more disturbingly, there appears also to be a lack of appreciation for the principles of reconciliation,” Chief Willie Sellars said last week.

Sellars was reacting to city council’s move to unanimously vote that Williams Lake residents should be able to have their say on whether the city’s official community plan should be amended to allow the building of the approximately 6,000 square foot facility within city limits on Williams Lake Indian Reserve #6 near retail cannabis store Indigenous Bloom. The comments were made during a live stream regular council meeting on April 21.

At the meeting, Coun. Scott Nelson said tax exemptions and initiatives were put in place on the city’s north end industrial lands after they were identified as the best location for future cannabis cultivation opportunities more than a year ago following public hearings and consultation.

He said although the City has an agreement with the WLIB on water and sewer, they do not have a revenue agreement for policing costs, fire protection and bylaw, as well as curbs and gutters which will need to be addressed.

“I think it’s prudent, as we enter this new era of land being given to First Nations and what they can put into those particular locations, that we consult with the public on this and seek their opinion and then encourage the WLIB to respect what the residents of Williams Lake are suggesting.”

Read More: Williams Lake Indian Band eyes B.C.’s first farm to gate cannabis operation

Councillor Jason Ryll said while the City has and wants no jurisdiction on what the WLIB is allowed to do with their property, the City has a responsibility to consult with its residents when something contravenes guidelines laid out in their official community plan.

Mayor Walt Cobb said the public needs to know ‘exactly what is going where,’ noting the City went through a similar process with a micro brewery which is currently being constructed at the former Greyhound depot on Donald Road.

“Not everyone is going to agree but we need to let the public and everybody know what it might look like at the end of the day.”

If given the thumbs up by residents of Williams Lake, Williams Lake mayor and council also agreed to approach the WLIB on entering into a revenue sharing agreement on the project, which Sellars said could net revenue of up to $8 million per year.

Sellars said he believes the cannabis cultivation project represents an incredible economic opportunity for WLIB and for the region.

“In the wake of the pine beetle epidemic, the Mount Polley disaster and now the COVID crisis, it is critical that we look for ways to diversify and revitalize. This cannabis project will create opportunities for highly skilled, well paid jobs. It will attract tourists to the region. It will dramatically improve the land use standard in the area of South Mackenzie Avenue,” he said.

An informative overview of the WLIB’s plans to expand into cultivation was provided by Sellars on Facebook last month as a way to engage the public.

“The feedback has been universally positive, and has come not only from our membership, but also the general citizenry of Williams Lake,” he said. “The people of Williams Lake recognize that WLIB is a champion for the Cariboo. We create jobs, we invest in infrastructure, we attract tourists and we raise the profile of this region. We’re going to continue to doing so, and we will do so in a carefully planned, sustainable and considerate fashion.”

Sellars said the WLIB is happy to continue a dialogue with the City with the goal of educating them about the authority of First Nations government and the benefits of working collaboratively with First Nations governments.

“We will not, however, go backwards on this project,” he said. “We’re still fully committed to the schedule we outlined on social media.”

The WLIB is seeking to break ground within the next four to five weeks on the facility located on federal land administered and managed by the WLIB pursuant to a land code enacted under the provisions of the First Nations Land Management Act.

When operational, the facility will provide 10 to 20 full-time jobs and be B.C.’s first farm to gate cannabis operation where high quality cannabis can be bought directly from the facility where it is grown, Sellars said.

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