B.C. ranch treaty deal could guide future negotiations

The province’s purchase of the former Carpenter Mountain Ranch for the Soda Creek band is seen as a win for all sides

An innovative treaty solution has put a First Nations band in the ranching business, and could result in similar deals in the future.

The British Columbia provincial government last summer announced its $8 million purchase of ranch lands, Crown land range tenure, cattle, hay and equipment, for the Xatśūll First Nation, also known as the Soda Creek Indian band.

The purchase of the former Carpenter Mountain Ranch, brings the band — as part of Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw (NStQ) — “a significant step closer to reaching a treaty with the provincial and federal governments,” Cale Cowan tells Canadian Cattlemen. Cowan is a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation

The deal includes 3,890 acres of deeded land, 280 acres of additional pasture, over 500 head of cattle, extensive outbuildings and two residences. Cowan also noted the working ranch has 1,200 acres of hay production and a wealth of irrigation.

“Purchasing this ranch helps support a secure future and self-determination for (Soda Creek) by creating opportunity for economic development for the community,” Cowan says.

New operators

Sheri Sellars, chief of the Soda Creek First Nation. photo: Supplied by Soda Creek First Nation

“The ranch agreement ties into reconciliation by us working together with the other two governments, federal and provincial,” adds Sheri Sellars, Soda Creek First Nation chief. “There were so many challenges to rangeland, and by working together, we came up with an innovative way and process to develop that agreement.”

The ranch sale closed on March 27, 2020, and the band has been operating the ranch since that time, Cowan says.

For the band, this ranch means a revenue generator with a food security component.

“It also brings us back to the land, brings back old traditions such as haying, and brings back traditions of looking after animals again,” says Sellars.

The previous owner stayed on to show them the ropes, but that’s now concluded.

For ongoing day-to-day operations, the band has retained the lead ranch hands, Sellars says. The band is also working on a proposal to start training its own people.

“There are some families in the community who’ve had cattle in the past. However, most of the experience within the community is with hay production,” Sellars says.

There has also been a standing committee struck to help with the higher-level ranch functions. “That board includes industry experts,” she adds.

Transition

Once the province took ownership of the property, the ranch lands were leased to Soda Creek.

Cowan explains that the lease to the band is at a nominal rate for 10 years or until the effective date of the treaty, and covers the ranchlands, grazing licences, grazing lease and associated water licences.

The purchase agreement also includes a one-time grant of $420,000 to cover ranch operations for one year.

“Operating costs include any costs reasonably incurred during the regular operation of a ranching operation, such as: bulls, replacement heifers, seed, fertilizer, irrigation, minerals and salt, grazing fees, marketing, trucking, veterinary bills, fuel, shop supplies and tools, equipment maintenance and repair, fencing, property taxes, labour, insurance, utilities, and office and administration services,” Cowan says.

Support from B.C. stakeholders

First Nations, ranchers and local government representatives were all supportive of this solution to advance treaty negotiations, Cowan says.

B.C. Cattlemen’s Association (BCAC) was among those giving the thumbs up.

“One of the principles that B.C. Cattlemen have encouraged in the development of the treaty process is that the Crown consider purchasing ranches as part of the settlement where there is a willing buyer and willing seller,” BCAC general manager Kevin Boon states in a release.

He explains this scenario is helpful to those exiting the industry, but also to those who remain in it.

“The hope being the guy gets to sell his ranch and exit the industry, as was the case here, but it allows another ranch somewhere else that might have (otherwise) lost their Crown land due to the treaty to retain that,” Boon says.

Baled hay from the 2020 haying season. photo: Supplied by Soda Creek First Nation

This is the first time the province bought a ranch as part of treaty negotiations, Cowan says. He adds, however, the provincial government has previously acquired private lands on a willing seller-willing buyer basis for transfer to First Nations as part of treaty negotiations, Cowan notes.

“This ranch purchase is an example of how we’re collectively reinvigorating the treaty process through mechanisms that are tailor-made based on local circumstances,” Cowan says. “By purchasing this ranch, we are strengthening our government-to-government partnership with Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw First Nations, advancing treaty negotiations and helping to grow the local economy for the benefit of all communities and residents.”

Cowan says the province is committed to working with First Nations, local governments and key stakeholders “to come up with innovative solutions to keep moving our important reconciliation work forward.”

“This could, in some cases, include measures like purchasing properties such as ranches, where the circumstances are appropriate,” Cowan says. “However, most land transfers under agreements with First Nations involve Crown lands rather than private lands, such as ranches.”

BCAC’s Boon sees this very much as a test pilot case.

“And I would anticipate that it very well could be part of any future negotiations,” Boon says.

Treaty stage

Unlike other parts of Western Canada, most of B.C.’s land was not covered by treaties, as officials didn’t negotiate treaties with most First Nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1990, First Nations and the provincial and federal governments established a task force to resolve land claims. Negotiations with NStQ — including Soda Creek — have been ongoing for approximately 25 years. The NStQ are in the fifth stage of treaty negotiations with B.C. and Ottawa.

Xatśūll First Nation has over 400 members, and is the northernmost part of the NStQ, which has more than 2,600 members living in the Cariboo region of B.C.

When the negotiation of the treaty is concluded, all four NStQ Nations will need to vote to accept or reject the treaty, Cowan says.

“If the treaty is ratified through this vote, the ranch lease would end when the treaty comes into effect, and the ranch would become treaty settlement lands,” Cowan says.

Cowan says that if the four NStQ Nations reject the treaty, B.C. would engage in discussions with Soda Creek about the future of the ranch.

“If members reject that agreement, we would either start renegotiating treaty or step away from the treaty process,” says Sellars. “In either of the latter events, we’d have to decide if we want to continue leasing it from the province, buy it from the province, or cease our involvement. Right now, for us, it is just a learning process and going through the treaty negotiations. In my own opinion, I see us taking the ranch over in the end.”

Cowan adds it’s difficult to predict how much longer negotiations will take as the issues are complex.

“We hope to make substantial progress toward a treaty in the next few years,” Cowan says.

BCCA membership

The former Carpenter Mountain Ranch was a BCCA member, and the group has extended an invitation to the new operators to become members, but the band hadn’t yet formed a relationship with BCCA, Boon says.

“We would like to make them a part of the organization,” Boon says.

Sellars says the band is still growing its relationships and figuring out how it works within the industry.

“We are pleased to see this moving ahead, and look forward to the Soda Creek band becoming more active members in the ranching industry in B.C.,” she says.

Richard Kamchen is a Winnipeg-based veteran agriculture writer and has delved into hockey, co-authoring books such as “Don’t Call Me Goon” and “The Goaltenders’ Union.”

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