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Penticton airport closed for a day by band protest

Tracey K Bonneau, Raven's Eye Writer, PENTICTON

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Penticton Indian Band members reacted angrily on March 31 to news that a land transfer agreement was about to be signed by Transport Canada and the city of Penticton which would turn over federally-controlled airport land to the city.

About 200 Native supporters demonstrated at the airport that day, forcing the cancellation of at least three local flights.

The band has been at odds with the federal government over this issue for several years. In 1994, the federal government announced its new national airports policy and its intention to phase out federal responsibility for airports by transferring control to private interests or local governments.

The airport land was expropriated from the Penticton Indian Band in 1944 under the provisions of the War Measures Act. In 1996, Transport Canada announced it would be transferring title and responsibility of the airport to the city of Penticton. Transport Canada announced that it would only transfer responsibility to a local government and it did not recognize the band as a local government. The band members told Transport Canada and the city that the interests in the airport land belonged to them. Chief Stewart Phillip then stated the band would not "allow legalized theft" and noted that the band would "never relinquish claim to the airport lands."

In a compromise reached through negotiation, the band developed the concept of a reversionary clause which arose as a side negotiation to the transfer talks. At first, the indications were that an agreement that the land would revert to band control "should the airport be no longer used by fare paying customers from the general public" appeared to be acceptable to both the city and the band.

The band agreed to let the talks resume as long as the reversionary clause would be written into the deal.

Talks then continued between the city and Transport Canada as federal negotiators stuck to the policy of not accepting the band as a local government. Talks came to a screeching halt when Transport Canada rewrote the reversionary clause. The new definition stated the airport would only revert if the number of flights fell below 1,000.

Band representatives, noting there are 48,000 flights a year from the airport, decided the numbers would never drop that low. They felt the clause was intentionally written to be ineffective.

Then Transport Canada's senior negotiator, Cliff Rhodes, said the reversionary clause would only be added at the discretion of the ministry, virtually ignoring any claim of jurisdiction exercised by the band.

Feeling their interests were being trampled by the federal government, the Penticton membership attended a community meeting and decided to take action. Roads to the airport were blocked and demonstrators blocked the entrance to the terminal.

In response to the protest, the Transport minister issued a press release announcing a six-week "cooling off period." Chief Phillip warned that the protest would only be halted temporarily. He told Raven's Eye that "the recent conflict has created a situation where the Elders are demanding a legal review of the original expropriation and, furthermore, the band members have instructed the band council they no longer have the mandate to participate within the framework agreement."

The band has also engaged the high profile Vancouver Aboriginal law firm Mandell Pinder and at this point intends to review the entire matter and set a new course action based on that firm's advice.

The band membership appears to be united and motivated to fight this issue no matter what. Local observers say that if the city agrees to sign the transfer agreement and ignores the band and its concerns, it could be faced with a situation that would make the March 31 demonstration look like a tea party, saying if the airport is shut down the local economy will be devastated.

Phillip said the original reversionary clause was a compromise that his council negotiated in good faith. He said badfaith entered the arena when Transport Canada attempted to compromise on the compromise. Phillip pointed out that bad faith also resulted from the "bilateral talks shutting out the interests of the Penticton Band."

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