Metro Vancouver directors decided in a split vote Thursday to push the province to bar thousands of residents living on first nation reserves from voting in municipal elections.
The board voted to ask the province to address as “a priority” a discussion paper by the Lower Mainland Advisory Committee last year, which suggests that reserves, which are federal lands, be excluded from municipal boundaries.
That would mean people living on the reserves – both aboriginal and non-aboriginal – could not cast ballots in municipal elections.
In 2006, there were 22 reserves within Metro Vancouver with more than 7,000 native and non-native residents, according to the discussion paper.
That number could grow substantially if planned residential developments on reserves are built.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan told the Metro board it made no sense to allow people on a reserve who are not paying for services in an adjacent municipality to be allowed to vote in that municipality’s elections.
“To say that someone who does not live in our city — and is not renting, living or associated in any way with paying taxes in our community — should be able to vote, is contrary to what we believe is a democratic principle,” said Corrigan.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said he found “ludicrous” the notion that potentially growing populations on first nation reserves could vote in adjacent communities. “If we are going to allow that principle, I would love to have a vote for the mayor of Vancouver,” he said.
About a dozen directors voted in favour of telling B.C. Community Minister Ida Chong that the recommendations raised in the discussion paper need to be addressed quickly.
Chong, in a letter to Metro Vancouver in January, has already outlined she has concerns over the changes proposed in the discussion paper. “Disenfranchising citizens who live within local government service areas without their consent would be viewed by many British Columbians as undemocratic,” she wrote.
Chong noted the proposed changes would affect the entire province.
Metro representatives from Vancouver and West Vancouver voted Thursday against the move.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson tried unsuccessfully to refer the issue back to the committee level so “more adequate” consultation could take place with first nations and non-native residents who live on reserve land before the board considers any recommendations.
He admonished the board to proceed carefully, saying its stance could jeopardize the stronger relationships that were being built with first nations.
Both Vancouver and West Vancouver have established service agreements with first nations that provide payments for city-supplied services.
“Vancouver’s concern is that Metro moves too fast to potentially disenfranchise voters living on reserve,” Robertson said in an interview.
The push by Metro Vancouver comes as more first nations pitch large-scale residential developments on their lands, particularly in West Vancouver and North Vancouver District, which is expected to significantly boost the non-aboriginal population.
Between 1986 and 2006, the population of non-aboriginals living on first nation reserves more than doubled to 26,000, according to the discussion paper.
The B.C. Voters’ Guide states residents living on reserves can participate in local government elections, either as a voter or potential candidate.
But while they pay taxes to the first nation bands, that money is rarely remitted to neighbouring local governments or taxation authorities such as TransLink.
Left unchecked, the advisory committee warns in its draft report, the situation could exacerbate the issue of “representation without taxation.”
In West Vancouver, for instance, a proposal by the Squamish First Nation at Park Royal, could increase the proportion of eligible voters on the reserve to 30 per cent in 25 years. Residential highrise developments are also proposed for areas around Ambleside, the Capilano River and in Vancouver’s Kitsilano.
Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer last month opposed the board’s motion, noting there are 3,500 people living in social housing, 1,400 in homeless shelters and 190,000 renters who still get to vote. Reimer said the issue should be dealt with through negotiation.
But Corrigan said Metro is right to raise the question.
“I don’t think anyone should be offended we’re putting these issues on the table as part of the negotiations; it should be considered,” he said. “We’re a voice for local residents to ensure the appropriate level of participation is there for people living on reserves and that the rules are consistent between us.”