Six Nations official says no consultation done in Cambridge warehouse development

A community group against a proposed warehouse development near the Grand River in Cambridge, Ont., is urging city council to halt the project after learning members of Six Nations of the Grand River may not have been properly consulted, according to documents obtained by CBC News. 

A provincial Minister's Zoning Order was approved for the warehouse complex in April

Broccolini Real Estate Group is developing a 100,000 square meter warehouse with 110 loading docks and parking for more than 800 automobiles and 350 transport trucks on Old Mill Road in the Blair area of Cambridge. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

A community group against a proposed warehouse development near the Grand River in Cambridge, Ont., is urging city council to halt the project after learning members of Six Nations of the Grand River may not have been properly consulted, according to documents obtained by CBC News. 

"While we think we've been disrespected in this process, it's pretty clear the Six Nations of the Grand River have been disrespected for more than 150 years," said Alan Van Norman, co-chair of Blair Engaged, the group which formed earlier this year to raise an alarm over the lack of community consultation for the project. 

The group is expected to send a letter addressed to the Cambridge mayor and council on Tuesday, along with a letter from Six Nations Lands and Resources Director Lonny Bomberry, which both describe the lack of consultation.

Broccolini Real Estate Group is developing a 100,000 square metre warehouse with 110 loading docks and parking for more than 800 automobiles and 350 transport trucks on Old Mill Road in the Blair area of the city. 

Cambridge city council voted unanimously to endorse a Minister's Zoning Order (MZO) for the warehouse in April. An MZO allows the provincial minister of municipal affairs and housing to bypass local planning rules to spur development. In order for the development to be finalized, Cambridge city council must next approve a site plan application and then issue a building permit.

Locals came together as Blair Engaged after a lack of public consultation in the MZO approval process. The group is now calling for the zoning order to be rescinded and for more consultation on the project. They have also hired David Donnelly from Donnelly Law to help bolster their efforts. 

'Unhelpful' discussion with developer was not consultation: letter

In Bomberry's letter addressed to Donnelly on Oct. 7, he states the land slated for the proposed warehouse belongs to Six Nations and should require consultation, at the very least. 

The land falls within the Haldimand Tract, which includes 10 kilometres on either side of the Grand River. It was granted to Six Nations of the Grand River in 1784 for allying with the British in the American Revolution. 

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, the traditional government of the Six Nations, made a call earlier this year for a moratorium on development of the area.

A recent demonstration by Six Nations land defenders that lasted a year forced the cancellation of a major housing project in Caledonia, Ont. There's also a current occupation at the Arrowdale Golf Course in Brantford, Ont., in an attempt to prevent the sale of the property by the city. 

This map of where the warehouse will go in Cambridge was part of a package from the Broccolini Real Estate Group presented to council on April 6. (Broccolini Real Estate Group/Cambridge City Council agenda)

"We are very displeased that both the City of Cambridge and the proponent, Broccolini Real Estate Group, have failed in their responsibility to consult with us to receive our free, prior, and informed consent," reads Bomberry's letter.

Bomberry wrote that the city's planning department wouldn't meet with the Six Nations of the Grand River Consultation and Accommodation Process (CAP) team.

He also said he eventually set up a meeting with the developers but received answers he called "very vague" or "in some cases misleading and not helpful in allaying our concerns about the environmental impacts of this proposed project." 

"As the discussion CAP team had with the Broccolini Group could not in any way be interpreted as consultation, [Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark] used his power to grant an MZO in a manner inconsistent with the honour of the crown, by failing to meaningfully consult and accommodate First Nations as required," he wrote.

Bomberry declined to comment to CBC on the letter, but confirmed its authenticity. Six Nations also didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Province says city responsibility to consult 

Broccolini spokesperson Jean Langlois wrote in an email the company "has followed and will continue to respect all municipal and provincial processes in place through all stages of the development, including consultations with First Nations, which have already been held."

He didn't offer any more detail on the consultations when asked.

Langlois said the upcoming site plan application which is being submitted to the city for approval includes studies and impact assessments on all aspects of the project ranging from noise and traffic to wetland preservation and heritage policies, among other things.

Residents in the Village of Blair in Cambridge are upset city council didn't consult them about a massive development in the area. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

City spokesperson Susanne Hiller said in an email a representative from "First Nations" asked to meet with the city before the province approved the MZO. She did not confirm whether a meeting occurred, saying only that the city was willing to meet but "asked that Minister or ministry officials, as the approval authority for the MZO, be included as part of that discussion."

She did say however that she was aware the developers "met with First Nations and other stakeholders," she wrote.

Hiller also said the city is still waiting on a complete site plan application from Broccolini. Once received, various agencies, stakeholders and First Nations will be able to comment on it.

Supporting studies for the plan will also be posted online and a traffic study and heritage impact assessment will be presented before council and open for delegations, according to Hiller.

City council will then vote on the plan.

The province has already faced broader criticism for the MZO process as a tool to fast-track developments. 

Conrad Spezowka, a spokesperson for the Ontario government, wrote in an email the province issued the Cambridge MZO at the request of the city to "get shovels in the ground faster for a warehouse distribution centre, helping create up to 1,400 jobs and support the City's ongoing response to COVID-19."

Spezowka said the province doesn't own that piece of land.

"It is our expectation that municipalities do their due diligence and consult in their communities, including with Indigenous communities and local residents, as part of any request for an MZO sent to the Minister for consideration," he wrote.

"In addition, the Minister had previously sent a letter to the municipality encouraging meaningful engagement with local communities who may be impacted by the requested MZO."

'Repeating history' with First Nations

Donnelly told CBC News if the city doesn't hold a public consultation or reverse the MZO, it's a "slap in the face" to locals and Six Nations.

"A failure to hold a public meeting to discuss the MZO would be a blatant act of hypocrisy for anyone who reads that Indigenous territory land acknowledgement at the beginning of every council meeting," he said.

Donnelly said if the city doesn't rescind the MZO, it could also lead to a request for a judicial review of the MZO approval process. He added archeological assessment documents for the development are also under review to determine if the land has cultural significance. 

He pointed to other Ontario cities including Pickering and Stratford, where city councils listened to community concerns and rescinded MZOs for similar proposals.

Coun. Jan Liggett said she doesn't think the city will reverse its plans to move ahead with the development, despite criticism from the public. (City of Cambridge/YouTube)

Cambridge's Ward 4 Coun. Jan Liggett, who has pushed back against what she calls the "Amazon-style" development after initially voting for it, said she is not optimistic the city will change course.

She said her attempts to have council reconsider including public consultation have gone unsupported.

Liggett said it doesn't bode well for its relationship with Indigenous communities.

"We're just repeating history here, we're saying we consider you equal, we're saying we need to make you part of our day-to-day decisions and have respect for you, but yet we're repeating past history. And we wonder why blockades happen."

With files from Kate Bueckert