Blueberry River First Nations signed an agreement with British Columbia Thursday, outlining first steps toward healing the land and restoring the nations’ ability to exercise its Treaty 8 Rights, which the province breached by permitting and encouraging industrial development on a vast scale, according to a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in June.
“It’s long overdue,” Chief Marvin Yahey told The Narwhal in an interview. “For the past 50 years, industrial development has totally wiped out all our traditional lands, our cabins and our trails … and also the wildlife.”
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Maegen Giltrow, legal counsel for Blueberry River First Nations, said the speed at which this agreement was finalized is an indication of the weight of the court ruling.
“We’ve never seen an order like this before,” she said in an interview. “The province has a real sense of urgency here, because the order is very real.”
The agreement includes a provincial commitment to provide $65 million in funding to Blueberry River First Nations for habitat restoration and cultural initiatives in the nation’s 38,300 square kilometres of territory. Projects include land, river, wetland, road and seismic line restoration.
As The Narwhal recently reported, Blueberry territory is fragmented by more than 110,000 linear kilometres of roads, pipelines and transmission and seismic lines. The funding is also aimed at supporting Blueberry River First Nations cultural restoration, such as education, language and development of traplines, cabins and trails.
“It’s been something that the Elders speak of, of healing the land, long ago,” Yahey said. “How they explained it was: we’re going to be living in a desert in the not-so-distant future if you do not get involved and handle this.”
He said the agreement, while long overdue, is welcome and charts a path toward healing.
“I’m very excited to be part of it, and that our people are going to be on the ground, rolling up their sleeves, and part of this,” he said. “This gives us a chance to get to be out on the land, and to make sure and help restore that balance the ecosystem once had.”
The province is taking a hands-off approach to the allocation of the funds, as noted in a statement released following the signing of the agreement.
“The Blueberry River First Nations government will establish its own decision-making structure with respect to the utilization of the restoration funds, priorities for restoration and for methodology and allocation of funding,” the statement said. “The province will participate in this structure, in a non-decision making role, to ensure that region-wide restoration activities are co-ordinated.”
The agreement allows 195 forestry and oil and gas projects to proceed because they were already approved prior to the court decision. This is consistent with the court ruling, which noted, “Blueberry seeks to stop future authorizations, but not to quash or undo existing ones.” However, 20 approved projects have been paused pending further negotiations as they are situated in areas of cultural and ecological importance.
It is uncertain if the Site C dam hydro project, which is located within the territory of the Blueberry River First Nation, will be affected by the court ruling. In its recent quarterly progress report, BC Hydro noted that it “continues to consult with Blueberry River First Nations and all Treaty 8 Nations and remains open to negotiating an Impact Benefit Agreement with Blueberry River First Nations.”
The report also noted that “although BC Hydro believes that the Blueberry decision should not affect the issuance of permits because the project is approved and under construction, there remains the possibility that the timing of the issuance of provincial permits required for the completion of the project may be affected.”
“The 20 [projects] were in particularly sensitive cultural areas,” Giltrow said. She was unable to disclose specifics of the authorizations on hold but told The Narwhal they are a mix of forestry and oil and gas projects. “Blueberry let B.C. know that there was real concern about these outstanding permits and something needed to be addressed about them. So that’s where good faith discussion and compromise can produce something like this first step initial agreement today.”
Murray Rankin, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said in a press conference the province has started discussions with other Treaty 8 Nations, which include Doig River, Fort Nelson, Halfway River, McLeod Lake, Prophet River, Saulteau and West Moberly.
“We’ll be engaging closely with other Treaty 8 Nations all along the way to ensure they’re also part of this important work, work to heal the land, work to restore the health of wildlife and improved land management and permitting processes on Treaty 8 territory,” Rankin said.
“What’s so important about the [court] decision is it recognizes that this is the foundation of the deal with Treaty 8,” Giltrow said. “The whole idea was, ‘You’ve got your way of life and we’re not taking anything away from that. You will allow some peaceful settlement to come into the territory, and you will only benefit from that.’ ”
The distinction is important, she said, because it doesn’t preclude economic gain, nor industrial development.
“Treaty 8 made sure that there was room for both, and it requires maintaining a healthy environment so the Indigenous way of life can continue to prosper.”
Rankin acknowledged that need to find balance.
“It’s critically important to maintain a strong economy in this region for everyone who lives there,” he said. “And that is something that we will do together.”
The implications of the court decision beyond Treaty 8 territories remains to be seen but Giltrow said the nature of the ruling will have impacts across the province.
“The province’s cumulative effects management regime, writ large, was put on trial in this trial and found to be, as the judge put it, seriously wanting.”
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