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B.C. First Nation ‘flooded’ with resource project referrals from industry, province amid coronavirus lockdown

New temporary guidelines released by the province aim to ensure consultations with Indigenous communities — often under-resourced and overburdened during the project assessment and consultation phase — are conducted ‘in an appropriate manner’ during the pandemic

In many ways, industry and services in B.C. have ground to a halt due to COVID-19. But according to an employee of the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, resource extraction proponents appeared to be operating as usual after the band office shut its doors and reduced community services. 

The office was “flooded” with about 30 referrals from industry and the provincial government between March 9 and March 23 regarding resource extraction projects, according to Joanne Hammond, the director of archaeology, heritage, and environment. The corporation is independent but operates in collaboration with Skeetchestn Indian Band.

First Nations typically have 30 days to respond to a referral, often the preliminary step in formal consultation processes, in order to be included in consultation as a project moves forward.

“If you are the bureaucrat or ministry or industry dude who issued a referral in the last week like it’s business as usual, asking a First Nation to comment within 30 days on a resource decision, I honestly don’t understand what reality you’re in,” Hammond tweeted on March 23.

The province told The Narwhal it has developed updated, temporary guidelines for provincial permitting regarding consultation with First Nations during the pandemic.

“The province is working to ensure we are addressing consultations in an appropriate manner that recognizes the current circumstances of First Nations while considering the operational needs of applicants,” said Sarah Plank, the communications director for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

Plank emphasized the new guidelines are subject to change as “the acuteness of the COVID-19 situation changes.”

A screenshot of Hammond’s referrals portal shows requests for response from the province as well as from industrial proponents including Carrier Lumber and Teck Resources. Neither company responded to requests for comment before publication time.

The province has asked citizens to avoid groups of more than 50 people, and most offices and businesses have shut their doors to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Yet, major industrial sites have maintained operations because the province has deemed them essential services

This means Coastal GasLink has continued construction of its natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. despite Wet’suwet’en opposition and unanswered legal questions. Fort St. John’s municipal government has called on the province to “send everybody home” from the Site C dam construction site. After The Narwhal published concerns from employees at Teck Resources’ Elk Valley operation that Teck was not taking adequate precautions, the company reduced its workforce at the site by 50 per cent. 

Hammond told The Narwhal that even before the pandemic, the amount of incoming referrals for the Skeetchestn Indian Band was “out of hand.”

“There was nothing manageable about it,” she said. “One thing we have to say most frequently to government and industry is if we’re not responding … it’s not that we’re declining the opportunity. There’s not enough capacity to manage everything that comes through the door.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, her department has been even more overstretched. She said the staff normally includes about 35 employees, but almost half have been pulled away to help manage the community’s response to COVID-19. She said the office shut down their referrals portal and sent out a notice they won’t be engaging with referrals until at least April 20.

The province’s amended guidelines, dated March 25 and provided to The Narwhal on Tuesday, instruct those in charge of consultation to check whether band offices are open and “expect to adjust timelines and defer engagement accordingly.”

“Statutory decision makers should consider whether the province has acted honourably in meeting its duty to consult and accommodate, particularly in light of an absence of responses from First Nations in the current pandemic situation,” the internal document states.

The guidelines outline that in urgent cases, such as those that include public safety or environmental protection, it “may not be appropriate to (significantly) delay or defer consultation,” in which case the province should inform First Nations why it will not delay the process.

Hammond said the best long-term solution is to eradicate the referrals system altogether.

“Decisions are made in government and then they’re letting us know what they’re going to do, and giving us a small window of opportunity to impact that,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to do away with that altogether and to develop a sound system of shared decision-making.”

First Nations focus resources on COVID-19 response

Chief Greg Louie of Ahousaht First Nation said his nation is so overloaded dealing with the possibility of the pandemic reaching their territory that they aren’t opening any document or email that doesn’t have to do with COVID-19.

Louie said the federal government has told First Nations to put things like financial reporting on hold, so the same measures should apply to the province and industries sending out referrals.

“If they’re sending out these referrals that have a deadline of April 15, as an example, I would say, ‘why aren’t you following what your bosses [the federal government] are saying?’ What the ministers are saying is everything is on hold,” he said.

Tahltan Central Government said it did not have time for an interview, but told The Narwhal it has continued to receive referrals as usual during COVID-19.

The Narwhal reached out to 20 Indigenous governments to ask if they were having issues with referrals. Besides Ahousaht, Skeetchestn and Tahltan, most communities either did not respond or told The Narwhal that they were too overwhelmed preparing their communities to provide information.

First Nations across the province have declared states of emergency and many have blocked or restricted access to their communities, including Ahousaht First Nation, which is only accessible by boat or floatplane. The only vessels coming into the territory are carrying food and supplies.

A systemic problem

Alistair MacDonald provides consultation in areas such as environmental assessment and community planning for Indigenous clients. Based on his work with the Firelight Group, an Indigenous-owned research company, MacDonald said First Nations face challenges taking part in environmental assessments even in the best of times, with limited staff to take part in multiple projects.

“It can take two to three years to conduct an environmental assessment. That’s a heavy commitment for an individual nation,” he said. “Capacity is very limited, very few nations have the funding capacity or human resources that they could devote a single person to a single environmental assessment.” 

MacDonald said he hasn’t heard of any of Firelight’s clients having the same experience as Skeetchestn, adding that he views those referrals as “totally inappropriate.”

“This is not a ‘business as usual’ environment we’re living in, especially for First Nations with multiple responsibilities in governance,” he said.

The overwhelming obstacles First Nations face in the environmental assessment process is well documented. A 2011 study found the process “simply does not work” from the perspective of First Nations. Researchers spoke with a number of B.C. First Nations, industry proponents and provincial authorities before concluding that Indigenous communities lack capacity and suffer from “inadequate” mandated timelines.

The federal government also updated the Impact Assessment Act in late 2019 to better address gaps in the process that created undue pressure on First Nations. 

However new research published in February found that, even under the new act, the impacts of colonization and financial limitations of First Nations can impede the ability of communities to engage at a meaningful level, especially when it comes to the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in the consultation and review process.

Some of the procedural obstacles identified through this new research includes “mandated and limited timelines” and the “externally driven nature” of environmental assessments.

The NDP government also updated the province’s Environmental Assessment Act in December to improve public participation and Indigenous consultation. According to an intentions paper released by the province, the revised act aims to incorporate reconciliation into the review process.

Allen Edzerza, a member of the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council and a citizen of the Tahltan Nation, said it remains too soon to see the impact of the updated regulations, and many First Nations still lack the funding and staff to deal with referrals.

“There’s always the capacity issue,” he said. “There are over 100 exploration companies in [Tahltan] territory. So, if those 100 exploration companies want to do work, and they have to do a work order, and they are required to reach out and consult with the Tahltan, you can see how many orders would come from that.”

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