Kanaka Creek is a small river that enters the Fraser in Albion. It descends from Blue Mountain through a series of forested ravines until it meets the level of the Fraser near 240th Street. Then the Kanaka meanders through wetlands and floodplain forest to its mouth.
Long respected for its bounty of salmon, game, and plants, Kanaka Creek has also been appreciated for its scenic beauty. Aboriginal people and European settlers visited the dramatic waterfalls now at Cliff Park. While farms encroached on the river on its flats, disturbances along the upper reaches of the stream came from fishing and the use of the spring freshet to push sawn timber down to the Fraser. Light population kept the river’s riparian area mostly intact, despite being subject to human use.
The transformation of the Kanaka’s rural landscape into a suburban one began after the Second World War. Even though the population density of the area remained relatively low, the popularity of the car allowed urban housing to push onto rural sites. Retreats and family estates were carved out of the 160-acre farm allotments. These square parcels had always been impractical in this area of rolling hills and steeply cut ravines, where they often included inaccessible corners isolated by swift streams. Subdivided and used for housing, the lots including the thickly-forested creek valley made living in this area scenic and attractive. Subdivision confirmed that most of the river lay in private hands.
Beginning early on in this phase of suburban growth, the regional planning authority laid out priorities for protecting and acquiring natural and recreational areas of significance. In 1966, regional planners with Vancouver-Fraser Park District, predecessor of today’s regional parks system, selected the watershed of the Kanaka as one such area. When the municipality of Maple Ridge entered this system in 1972, the Greater Vancouver Regional District began assembling properties along the course of the Kanaka, beginning with those that were already held by other levels of government. The concept was to deliver a “linear park” that could offer recreational hiking, fishing, and other activities to the public while preserving the creek’s ecosystems. To do this, the regional district required a vote on its financial plan for acquiring the portions of the Kanaka watershed that were held privately. At a meeting of the board on April 26, 1972, Kanaka Creek was one of many parks in the Lower Mainland where $860,000 was allotted for land purchases. The board also approved a by-law to authorize the borrowing of up to $5,000,000 for future parkland acquisition.
The flow of public opinion on the park proposal turned into a torrent when, in 1977, leaked details about purchase negotiations suggested the regional district’s strategy was to accelerate property acquisition, which many interpreted as implying expropriation of lands. One property owner, Jeff Tarris, gave fuel to the newly organized “Kanaka Creek Residents’ Association when he received a letter from the GVRD which he said implied expropriation would be considered for his property within three to five years. Expropriation was not explicitly mentioned. Plans showed that the park would infringe on 191 privately-held properties and completely enclosed 35 homes. This inflamed property owners–and some elected officials on the regional district board such as Vancouver councillor May Brown, who claimed the board had not been made aware by planning staff that many of the properties to be acquired had already been built upon.
While some property owners supported the designation of a “Greenbelt”, under which their lands in the Kanaka’s riparian area would be subject to a restrictive covenant prohibiting their disturbance, yet would remain off-limits to the public; other residents of the Kanaka watershed proposed changing the park proposal to achieve ecological protection and recreational potential, and satisfy private property interests. There was disagreement on the effectiveness of all proposals: the Greenbelt idea required compensation for property holders without providing any recreational benefit to the public–a clear mandate of the GVRD–while the modified park proposal appeared to only weakly protect the creek’s environmental value. Planning staff with the regional district repeatedly claimed they had no intention of expropriation–except under circumstances where soil dumping and other activities on private lands were urgently threatening the quality of the creek, or where–according to regional planner Rick Hankin–“excessive costs would result from private development”. Residents of the Kanaka watershed were left anxious and unsatisfied when Hankin failed to elaborate on the nature of “excessive costs” in defense of the park program.
Many local residents and members of the Kanaka Creek Residents’ Association, as well as GVRD board members, blamed the municipality of Maple Ridge for the public relations crisis. After all, many of the area’s residents had purchased property in the Kanaka basin after 1972, when the intent to acquire property in the area became public record. It was felt by property owners that the municipality had failed to disclose the park plan even as it had continued to approve building permits and rezoning applications within the boundaries of the future park. These approvals continued until March 1977, when the municipality was also chastised in an April meeting of the GVRD board. Eyebrows were further raised when local councillor and Maple Ridge’s representative at the regional district, Don Boyce, along with several family members and colleagues, was revealed to have purchased plots of land in 1976 that would acquired and compensated under the park proposal. No illegality was implied. Boyce recused himself from later decisions on the future park lands, though he maintained there was no conflict of interest.
Following two open house events at which a modified park boundary was presented, the GVRD re-approved a five-year acquisition program in spite of a handful of property owners who howled that they had not been compensated for depressed land values. Land speculation had been a serious issue, which Harry Fuller, area resident and member of the Kanaka Creek Residents’ Association, summarized the issue:
“A creek is an attractive natural feature and a selling point for developers holding land […] Therefore land along the creek will tend to be developed in the overall development pattern. The resulting pressure for the expansion of services along the creek will force taxation sharply upward, and people holding small acreage along the creek will be forced to subdivide and sell. […] To leave things as they are is not acceptable because of the threat of large-sale housing development. Even now each additional house along the creek, especially on some of the smaller lots, reduces privacy, and if additional houses are built near the creek, they threaten the creek environment.”
As consensus widened around the need to protect the creek’s ecological health, and park boundaries were redrawn to affect fewer properties, support for the GVRD’s public-access park concept prevailed in the community and at city hall. In September 1981, the regional district expropriated seven acres on the lower Kanaka to prevent soil dumping on the creek’s foreshore. Then, in the spring of 1982, consultation between Maple Ridge, the regional district, and the Kanaka Creek Residents’ Association allowed planner Ron Boyes to call meetings between regional district and property owners for the purpose of negotiating purchase agreements. The municipality also agreed to disallow or reject any subdivision and rezoning applications that affected “undevelopable lands” within the Kanaka Creek ravine and floodplain. By this time, portions of the park that had been owned by other governments were accepting visitors, as at Cliff Falls and the 256th Street entrance.
The last major portion of Kanaka Creek Regional Park was opened in 1993, when the riverfront was purchased from New Zealand-based forestry company Fletcher Challenge. The site, nearly 160 acres in size, cost the regional district and municipality $1.8 million. Acquisition of small parcels in the Cliff Falls area continued into the 2000s. In total, just over $13,000,000 were spent by the regional district and the municipality to preserve this vital green space–the cost of making the Kanaka public.