Blueberry First Nation territory.

Blueberry River and the death by a thousand cuts

Their home was once a rich and vibrant landscape, capable of supporting their people into perpetuity. But now the Blueberry River First Nations have brought B.C. to court to face the cumulative impacts of rampant oil, gas and forestry development that has left the land degraded, wildlife poisoned and Treaty 8 in tatters. If successful, the case promises to transform the way First Nations, industry and governments undertake resource projects across Canada

When Chief Marvin Yahey was a young man, he was a competitive bull rider. He spent more than a decade travelling the summer rodeo circuits across western Canada, licking his wounds from one farming town to the next. Now in his late forties and long retired from riding, the second-term chief of the Blueberry River First Nations (located about 1,300 km northeast of Vancouver near Fort St. John) is discovering that life as a political leader can be just as bruising.

Blueberry’s traditional territory is at the centre of one of the biggest deposits of natural gas on the planet, the Montney formation. In the space of just 50 years, their territory has been transformed, despite a 1900 treaty that guaranteed no such mass destruction would ever occur.

The traditional territory of the Blueberry River First Nations and the Montney natural gas formation. Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Oil and gas, forestry and hydro-electric power (among other things) have transformed the land and water beyond recognition: by 2016, more than 110,000 linear kilometres of roads, pipelines and transmission and seismic lines had been cut across less than 40,000 square kilometres of land. Faced with the destruction of their last critical wilderness areas, the chief, backed by his council and elders, is taking action.

Yahey is now the plaintiff in an unprecedented, on-again, off-again series of legal actions in B.C. that started in 2015. On behalf of Blueberry, he is suing British Columbia for the full sum of destructive impacts over the last 50 years — including the many smaller developments that a lawyer familiar with the situation called “death by a thousand cuts.”

The current Supreme Court of B.C. case, which claims the 1900 treaty has been breached, is unique because, instead of focusing on a single industrial impact, it is based on thousands of individual authorizations which have collectively degraded the land and water. And if successful, it has the power to transform the way First Nations, industry and governments plan and execute resource projects in this gas-rich region — and far beyond.

“This is one of the first cases where a court is being called upon to analyze and understand what the cumulative effects are on a territory from many different sources, and how this affects environmental sustainability moving forward,” says Chris Tollefson, executive director at Victoria’s Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation.

“It’s important because nowhere in Canada have we successfully moved towards managing cumulative impacts across a broad landscape under development pressures like this, in a way that really rises to the challenge.”

Natural gas activity near the reserve of the Blueberry River First Nations. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Searching for answers

My introduction to the legal case came from a series of disturbing maps co-published by Ecotrust Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, documenting the physical impacts of decades of industry on Blueberry territory. This “disturbance atlas” is the legal case in a nutshell.

My interest in coming to the Peace in July 2018 was twofold: maps on paper are interesting, but I wanted to witness for myself what “death by a thousand cuts” looks like on the ground and from the air.

The second, perhaps harder part, was to meet with Blueberry Chief Marvin Yahey — over months I had only managed to get him on the phone once, but eventually he granted permission to attend Blueberry’s annual July “Cultural Days” camp at their Pink Mountain ranch, north of Fort St. John. Even with this, there was no guarantee that I could talk with the plaintiff — to ask why he brought the case, and why now was the time.

Those answers are important, because just as the province is in mediation with Blueberry (the case has been adjourned until April 2019 while both governments negotiate), they are simultaneously celebrating the final investment decision by a Shell-led consortium whose LNG Canada plant on the B.C. coast would necessitate a new boom of natural gas development across Blueberry territory.

Such a ramp-up puts First Nations like Blueberry in a nearly impossible situation: they need the high-paying jobs that an uptick in gas extraction will bring, but at the same time will face a new onslaught of water, land and air impacts that threaten their existence as a nation.

Land development from the air

It’s not until you get up to about 3,200 feet that the full gravity of cumulative impacts to Blueberry River First Nations territory and the wider Peace Region can be understood. On July 8, 2018, photographer Garth Lenz took a ride in a R44 helicopter to capture the bigger picture. 

High-intensity natural gas industry fracking operations generate tremendous volumes of toxic wastewater, seen here in storage tanks near the Pine River not far from the agricultural community of Farmington. Natural gas companies like Encana and ARC are intensifying operations in the region because of the high concentrations of valuable gas liquids, such as condensate, found deep under the earth’s surface. Garth Lenz/The Narwhal.Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

By 2016, more than 110,000 linear kilometres of roads, pipelines and transmission and seismic lines had been cut across less than 40,000 square kilometres of land, much of it on the traditional territory of the Blueberry River First Nations. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Logging and natural gas activity north of Fort St. John. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Jim Stratsky

Landowner and farmer Jim Stratsky with the banner he wrote on his family’s original homestead cabin in the Farmington area. In recent years, gas companies have surrounded his farm with 24/7 fracking operations, and taken over sections of his land to build pipelines. “I couldn’t just say ‘fuck off,’ so this is what I could say,” he says of the billboard. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Four drill derricks on a single well pad near Farmington, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Once a single-track farm road, routes like this one near Farmington now often carry a 24/7 stream of heavy traffic. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

New gas well pads north of Dawson Creek, built to exploit valuable liquids like condensate and pentane used in Alberta’s oilsands industry. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

A moose and calf (in the foreground) drink on the periphery of an old natural gas site near Prespatou, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Encana operations in the Farmington area. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Construction of the Site C dam near Taylor, B.C. Site C is the third dam on the Peace River. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Blueberry River First Nations reserve north of Fort St. John, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Between two worlds

Driving up the Alaska Highway towards Pink Mountain, the highway bisects two different worlds.

To the east is a gently rolling plateau stretching past the B.C. border into the Great Plains of Alberta; to the west are the foothills of the Rocky mountains of British Columbia. The Peace region is a part of the latter, but shares much in common with Alberta — it is a breadbasket that produces most of B.C.’s grain crops, and is home to a sprawling natural gas industry controlled remotely from head offices in Calgary.

My destination of Pink Mountain is more than a ranch and guiding territory for Blueberry; it is a critical area they have identified in their own land use planning, an area they cannot afford to further sacrifice to industry.

The ranch is at the end of a 26 kilometre dirt road that meanders through lush horse and cattle grazing pastures.

On July 4, I arrive to find several hundred people gathered. The atmosphere is casual and friendly.

I’m invited to check out a moose camp set up by Marvin Yahey’s sister nearby, where a blue tarp shelters a table holding the remains of a bull shot the day before. A fire has been built nearby, drying and smoking long strips of meat.

It’s only when you see the flesh of a bull moose piled on a single table that you can really conceive of it as a natural resource.

“We don’t waste a thing,” one of the women says, handing me a plate of meat pan-fried in butter. The football-sized heart will become soup; the gargantuan head, which stares up from the table, will be cracked open, with the brains applied as a conditioner to the moose hide, which will become moccasins and other garments.

Members of the Blueberry River First Nations, including Chief Marvin Yahey’s sister Bella, harvesting moose at Pink Mountain. Photo: Christopher Pollon / The Narwhal

Commodities such as moose are central to the nation’s legal case. Blueberry recently did its own land use planning and identified multiple “critical areas” where resources like moose must be protected if they are to continue to harvest the animals from the land.

Pink Mountain ranch is one of the critical areas, and for good reason.

“We can’t get moose at Blueberry anymore,” says one of the women as she hacks a leg joint with a hatchet. She says the rivers sometimes run dry near their reserves (about 80 kilometres to the southwest) from water extraction, which in turn drives away the animals.

“It’s the oil and gas,” she says.

Drill rig and operation east of Fort St. John near the Alberta border. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Old gas industry development near the Blueberry River First Nations reserve. Abandoned gas industry sites raise troubling questions about future reclamation costs and who will pay for them. Garth Lenz /The Narwhal

Legacy wells near Goodlow, just west of the B.C./Alberta border. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

The trouble with water and animals

I spend most of my first afternoon seated at a long picnic table, listening to elder Randy Yahey, Marvin’s brother. At 60, he knows the real names of the rivers, mountains and prairies that have long since been replaced by settler names. He knows the animals and their habits as well as any of us know the quirks of our dearest friends, because he has lived much of his life among them.

Seated across from him is Robin Ridington, an anthropologist whose classic 2013 book Where Happiness Dwells (coauthored by wife Jillian with input from Dane-zaa elders) is a culmination of 50 years spent doing just this — sitting with a tape recorder and preserving the words of Dane-zaa elders for future generations.

Robin Ridington interviews Randy Yahey at Pink Mountain in July. Photo: Christopher Pollon / The Narwhal

Impervious to the blistering sun in a leather jacket and purple collared shirt, Yahey appears to repeat himself a lot, but on closer listening, he practices a very deliberate, circular style of storytelling. He tells a story and circles back to an earlier one, continually reconnecting and reinforcing earlier points. Every once in a while, Ridington poses a new question or thought, but he is mostly quiet.

A few hours have passed when I pose a question of my own: during the last 50 years, what has been the biggest impact of oil and gas?

It’s water, he says.

On a hot summer day, like this one in early July, the animals are attracted to the water ponds at many of the fracking sites. They bathe in that oily, dirty water, and drink it too. He tells of moose that are sick, and of Dane-zaa hunters who must discard precious meat for fear of the poisons that originate in the water.

The news on the legal front

On June 29, two days before I flew to Fort St. John, the province announced the Blueberry legal case would be adjourned until October, making it the second time it had been delayed this year. A press release cited “productive negotiations” as the reason for the adjournment.

A spokesperson from the province later confirmed the resumption of land use planning in September for the Fort St. John region, with the participation of Treaty 8 First Nations like Blueberry — a process that had been abandoned for almost two decades by the BC Liberals.

Then on July 16, Blueberry entered into an agreement with the province to address “immediate concerns with respect to activities in [Blueberry] critical areas.”

The process has identified vast geographical areas northwest of Fort St. John (including Pink Mountain) where “new surface disturbances” will be either limited or restricted altogether.

Related to this process was a notice that appeared in the Alaska Highway News during my July visit, indicating that B.C. Timber Sales and Canfor are shifting forestry cut block locations in multiple Blueberry critical areas, including both Lilly Lake and the Tommy Lakes.

In the latest twist, the court case has been adjourned by mutual agreement until April 2019 — in the meantime, both parties are in negotiations to address how resource development on Blueberry territory will be practiced in the future.

The resumption of formal land use planning in the Fort St. John region promises to introduce strong measures to protect species of interest like moose and restoration of critical habitat and protection of critical wilderness areas. It also represents a future where Blueberry treaty rights are built into a legally binding system of land and resource management that has industry, the crown and First Nations all at the same table. Another issue under discussion will be to improve consultation and project permitting so that First Nations have more say from the outset.

As it stands now, the court case is on pause, but it could play out in a number of ways: the trial could resume in April; depending on what happens over the coming months, it could end with a settlement (i.e., the legal action would end for good without the trial resuming); or negotiations could drag on after April 2019.

Complicating all of this was the question of whether the Shell-led LNG Canada export project, and the great ramping-up of water extraction, fracking and land disturbance this would entail, gets the green light any time soon. The answer came on Tuesday, when the five project partners announced the LNG Canada project will move ahead.

Waiting for the LNG boom

To get a preview of what that pending ramp-up could look like, I meet with Brian Clarke a few days later, just south of Pink Mountain. We spend an entire day driving around the north Montney gasfields, where a vast infrastructure of pipelines and fracking wells has been recently established and sits mostly idle, waiting for an LNG boom.

During the last 50 years, Clarke has been a trapper, rancher, hunting guide and logger. He spent 40 years in this area with an 800 square-kilometre trapping territory bordered by the Alaska highway and the Sikanni river to the north.

When I say it must be beautiful country, he pauses. “It was.”

Gas really started booming in 2008, he says, and then again from about 2010 to 2015. Since then it’s been quiet.

“I really dread what’s going to happen when all this starts up again.”

Many of the inactive north Montney natural gas sites we saw in July are controlled by Progress Energy, a subsidiary of Malaysian-owned, Petronas, a 25 per cent partner in the LNG Canada export project. Photo: Christopher Pollon / The Narwhal

Brian Clarke parked in front of a fresh water storage pond north of Wonowon, B.C., near Pink Mountain. He fears it’s the calm before the LNG storm. Photo: Christopher Pollon / The Narwhal

On a series of dirt roads connected to the Alaska Highway just northwest of Wonowon, B.C., we see many big compressor stations, gas plants, well pads with multiple wells and water storage ponds, holding both fresh and contaminated “produced” water.

Almost all sites, including a huge newly constructed worker camp, are deserted.

Most of this infrastructure is owned by Progress Energy, the Canadian arm of Petronas, Malaysia’s state owned oil and gas company, which on May 31, bought a 25 per cent stake in LNG Canada. Progress Energy also had a B.C. LNG-export terminal proposal, Pacific Northwest LNG, but after abandoning it, the company appears intent to piggy-back on the Shell project.

Most of the gas beneath our feet here is “dry” — which means it is mostly natural gas, devoid of valuable hydrocarbons like propane and butane. (At July prices, the natural gas was not economic to extract, but in areas southward toward Dawson Creek where valuable liquids accompany the gas, a mini-boom continued through the summer.)

But when LNG Canada is built, this natural gas will be extracted for export to Asia.

Clarke has watched fur-bearing animals decline dramatically over the last 20 years, everything from marten to moose, which he attributes to oil and gas, booming wolf populations and aggressive forestry. We pass frequent southbound logging trucks on the Alaska Highway headed to sawmills and processing plants near Fort St. John.

Canfor Sawmill and Louisiana OSB mill in the background. Fort St. John, B.C..

The destination for much of the timber being cut in the north Montney is the Canfor sawmill and the Louisiana Pacific Canada OSB plant just outside Fort St. John, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

“They’re logging the last few patches of mature timber up here,” he says, in an area where it takes a century to grow a mature black spruce tree.

“They get away with it because nobody gives a damn.”

Clarke is clearly not happy with the changes to the land and rivers like the Beatton (“they have not been kind to that river”), but during our day together he never slags Progress or any other gas companies. Over time he has become resigned to their presence here, even working for them ploughing snow or moving earth with heavy machinery.

“Oil and gas encroached more and more on my trap line, and if you can’t beat them, you join them,” he said.

“And you can’t beat them.”

“If you can’t beat them, you join them. And you can’t beat them.” — Brian Clarke

Meeting with the chief

It was late on my second day at Pink Mountain that I got my chance.

Chief Marvin Yahey had spent most of the day on a high, elevated bandshell stage built in the main clearing, greeting visitors, including many industry and government representatives.

Most of the big Montney players were there — including Progress, Canadian Natural Resources and Shell (two executives from the latter brought Timbits and coffee). Even the mayor of Fort St. John dropped in.Yahey was cordial with the industry brass and there was much good-natured joking going on.

The underlying tension, if there was any at all, was not visible on the surface.

We sat at a table in the middle of the stage, overlooking the sprawling ranch, joined by anthropologist Ridington and one of the lawyers representing Blueberry in its legal case.

“We’re not against development, but what I’m against is people making decisions about my core territory without my permission, or my people’s permission.” — Chief Marvin Yahey

Yahey wears a ball cap, dark glasses and a camo jacket, covering a wiry cowboy frame. His resemblance to his brother Randy is striking. The subject of riding bulls comes up. “My sons do it, my father did it.” He still feels the pain from old wounds when the humidity is up, but otherwise, he has no regrets.

“Chicks dig it.” We all laugh.

Yahey cannot discuss case specifics, but describes the sequence of events that led to legal action.

In late 2013, when he started his first term as chief, resource decisions in Blueberry territory typically unfolded like this: industry and government sat at a table, and when the process was complete, they invited First Nations like Blueberry to do the grunt and labour work.

“We’re not against development, but what I’m against is people making decisions about my core territory without my permission, or my people’s permission. We want to be at the table at the planning stage.”

Continued industrial degradation of the handful of remaining, culturally significant wilderness areas made the case necessary.

“The walls were closing in on us, as the core critical areas were being developed at a very fast pace. So what was left for us to do? We have to save this for future generations, so we took a stand.”

Our talk is short. Yahey suggests we get together again on one of his future visits to Vancouver — which could see him take the stand in the B.C. Supreme Court case that bears his name.

“A lot of people are going to be watching that,” he says.

Christopher Pollon’s reporting was supported in part by a fellowship from the Uncharted Journalism Fund.

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