West Moberly Chief Roland Willson

Caribou protection plan spawns racist backlash in northeast B.C.

Misinformation is running rampant, but Treaty 8 chiefs say the proposed plan for the Peace region would not close any existing mining operations, affect approved pipelines or restrict backcountry access for activities such as mountain biking, fishing or hunting

Two Treaty 8 First Nations chiefs are alarmed by the racism and misinformation that has surfaced in recent weeks during consultations about draft agreements to save B.C.’s endangered caribou herds from local extinction.

“All three of them bands will sell the lives of all those caribou for a few bucks in their pockets,” says one Facebook post with 20 likes.

“I guarantee the Indians don’t know who they signed up,” says another Facebook post. “Cause there [sic] fuckin stupid . . . There [sic] using the Indians and there [sic] too dumb to know it.”

“Its [sic] not about the caribou,” says yet another Facebook post with 19 likes. “Wake up and follow the money.”

Caribou plan Facebook comments

Facebook comments made in response to the province’s ongoing caribou consultations.

West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Willson and Saulteau First Nation chief Ken Cameron called on British Columbians to denounce racism and to dispel myths and conspiracy theories about the proposed caribou agreements that are circulating in local communities.

Racism “includes ‘dog whistle’ statements in social media posts that promote stereotypes or invite others to imagine that there are some concealed motives lurking behind these agreements,” Willson said in a statement.

“There are no hidden agendas, and there is no need to stoke racism in the Peace region,” Cameron said. “We invite everyone to read the agreements and provide comments in a spirit of respect and friendship.”  

The chiefs said the proposed caribou agreement for the Peace region would not close any existing mining operations, affect approved pipelines or infrastructure, close mills, cost jobs or restrict backcountry access for activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping or hunting.

Premier John Horgan announced Monday that consultation timelines for the caribou recovery partnership agreement will be extended by four weeks, until May 31, saying his government “didn’t do enough work to prepare the public for this process.”

The premier also announced the appointment of Dawson Creek city councillor Blair Lekstrom, a former south Peace MLA and energy minister for the BC Liberals, as the community liaison for the consultations, which have drawn hundreds of people to public meetings that are often acrimonious.

Premier John Horgan Blair Lekstrom caribou consultations

In Dawson Creek on Monday, April 15, premier John Horgan appointed Blair Lekstrom, left, as community liaison for the province’s ongoing caribou consultations. The province also extended the engagement period amid heightened tensions and misinformation. Photo: Province of B.C. / Flickr

Horgan said his biggest concern is that the Peace region is “coming to confrontation over the caribou question,” expressing hope that Lekstrom’s appointment will help to reduce the rancour and find common ground to protect caribou.

Almost 30 of B.C.’s 52 surviving caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, and a dozen of those herds now have fewer than 25 animals. Two herds in the Kootenay region were declared locally extinct early this year.

The provincial government released two draft caribou agreements in March, one for the Peace region and one for the rest of the province.

The proposed caribou partnership agreement for the Peace — reached by Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations and the federal and provincial governments — features habitat protection, including the designation of a new protected area for caribou.

It also includes an Indigenous guardian program, building on efforts by the two First Nations to save the Klinse-za herd, one of six imperilled herds in the region, through a maternal penning project.  

The second, far less detailed conservation agreement — between the federal and provincial governments — covers the remainder of B.C.’s imperilled southern mountain caribou herds and does not include habitat protections or proposed restrictions on industrial development.

At a press conference following a meeting with the two chiefs on Monday, Horgan said there has been a “significant amount of misinformation” about the caribou agreements, noting the issue has “enraged some people and inflamed passions.”

“Sometimes it’s malicious communication and not always with the best of intentions and we need to be mindful of that,” the premier told reporters.

“It’s a challenge in the 21st century to wade through what is a stock response and what is a heartfelt concern — but that’s not just my problem, that’s the problem of elected representatives around the world.”

The chiefs pointed out that the caribou partnership agreement would have a “limited and manageable” effect on timber supply in the Peace, with a reduction in annual cut allowances distributed among three different timber supply areas.

The provincial government increased the annual allowable cut in those areas in recent years to harvest merchantable timber following the mountain pine beetle outbreak, the chiefs noted.

“There is no evidence that the agreements will cost jobs or close mills,” Cameron said.

Willson said if forestry companies Canfor or West Fraser “drop a shift or close the doors” at local mills, “it won’t be because of these agreements.”

“The grandstanding has to stop. It’s not factual and it’s not productive,” the chief said.

Horgan said the annual allowable cut would have been reduced even without the caribou agreements, noting “the beetle kill is come and gone.”

“Regardless of government changes, regardless of caribou, there is a dwindling fibre supply,” the premier told reporters.

Horgan said he has reached out to the B.C. Council of Forest Industries to talk about how to manage timber supply areas around the province, particularly in the north, with an eye to figuring out “how we make the best out of the wood we have available.”

“Not so much high volume, but high value when we’re working in the woods and we’re creating jobs and economic opportunity.”

The chiefs also took aim at false claims that the caribou partnership agreement will close existing mining operations and affect approved pipelines and other infrastructure.

They pointed out that the Mining Association of B.C. voiced support for the proposed agreements, saying during the engagement process that “it can’t be overstated that there is universal agreement that these draft agreements are the optimal outcome.”

Horgan noted that B.C. will “run afoul” of federal laws if it does not take action to protect caribou.

Last May, following decades of inaction by the B.C. government, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s declared that southern mountain caribou face “imminent threats” to their recovery and said immediate intervention was required.

If McKenna is not satisfied that B.C. has a suitable plan of action to protect endangered herds, she can ask the federal Cabinet to approve an emergency protection order under the federal Species at Risk Act.

That would allow Ottawa to make decisions that are normally within the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, such as whether or not to grant logging permits and close backcountry access.

The chiefs also zeroed in on a Facebook comment made by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer following an April 10 public meeting in Mackenzie at which it was confirmed that the proposed caribou agreement for the Peace contains no plans for backcountry closures.

Zimmer posted a statement the next day citing “plans to effectively shut down the back country to not only industry but to all activity . . . including hikers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers and campers.”

In an online Q & A about the caribou agreements, the B.C. government said it is “not true” that the caribou agreements will close all snowmobile trails and access to the backcountry.

The government said it will begin a dialogue with recreation users in the south Peace to ensure people understand “the potential risks and impacts that snowmobiling within critical habitat can pose to caribou” and to help the province understand how recreational management measures could impact communities “before decisions are made.”

Future open houses will focus on how to manage snowmobiling in critical caribou habitat, the government said.

“The open houses will focus on the latest caribou science, as well as on identifying key areas and trails that are important to snowmobilers and discussing what makes those places important to them,” the Q & A explained, noting that some snowmobiling “could be redirected to areas that do not pose a risk to caribou.”

Horgan said governments have an obligation to work with First Nations to protect caribou.

“Their constitutional rights to access caribou have been forgone by them in the interest of preserving the stocks,” the premier said, pointing out that West Moberly and Saulteau nations “have been working tenaciously for a long time to protect these animals.”  

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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