With UNDRIP action slow to materialize, First Nations in B.C. are going their own way

B.C.’s mining laws, which allow companies to stake claims without receiving consent from First Nations, underscore how far the province still has to go to fulfill its enshrined commitments to Indigenous Rights

The more things change the more things stay the same.

In October 2019, B.C. adopted legislation to implement UNDRIP — the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But more than two years on, First Nations are getting fed up with the province’s failure to live up to those commitments, which notably include free, prior and informed Indigenous consent for resource projects. And so, nations are taking matters into their own hands. 

The northwest coast Gitxaała Nation has filed a legal challenge against B.C. for failing to align its Indigenous Rights legislation with provincial mining laws; Gitanyow hereditary chiefs in northwest B.C. independently announced the creation of a new protected area; and the Nuxalk Nation on the central coast issued an eviction notice to an exploration company.

“Our fight really isn’t with the company,” Nuskmata (Jacinda Mack) told The Narwhal’s northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons after serving the eviction last summer. “It’s with the province for issuing these permits. Anybody who has any type of moral fibre to them will understand that this is wrong, and the way that they’re going about it is wrong.”

Nuskmata was referring to a permit process that underscores flaws in existing mining legislation, which dates back to the gold rush. As things stand now, companies can stake a claim on unceded Indigenous territory without informing or receiving permission from affected First Nations.

Colin Arisman Tulsequah Chief Tulsequah River
An overflowing containment pond at the Tulsequah Chief mine in northwestern B.C. Photo: Colin Arisman / The Narwhal

The outdated system is among a number of problems driving a growing chorus of Indigenous voices to unite in calls for change. This week, as Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Bruce Ralston celebrated B.C.’s Mineral Exploration Week by touting the “collaborative” nature of the province’s “world-class mining,” the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council flagged 25 calls-to-action to get the government to actually live up to those claims.

“One thing that comes up again and again when I report on these issues is the calls for consent and for Indigenous sovereignty are not coming from an anti-industry sentiment,” Matt told me. “It’s about inherent Rights and Title and the choice to determine what happens on Indigenous territories, which in some cases is a ‘no’ to mines, in others a ‘yes, but with conditions.’ ”

Some companies are proactively adopting the UNDRIP framework in advance of any provincial action. This includes working collaboratively to protect land and reach consent-based decision-making agreements with nations.

These developments aren’t just playing out in silos: they point to the wider issue of how the province and industry will move forward on reforms, especially in the wake of a landmark B.C. Supreme Court decision last summer.

In that ruling, the court concluded that the province infringed on Blueberry River First Nations’ Treaty Rights when it permitted and encouraged resource extraction on the territory for decades, resulting in untold damage to the landscape, ecosystems, wildlife and ways of life.

The story of Indigenous consent and resource extraction in B.C. won’t be going away. Stay tuned for more coverage from Matt, including a deep dive into the reverberations stemming from the Blueberry case.

Take care and be a world-class human,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience

The Narwhal in the world

A photo of workers in a field outside a greenhouse.
Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Over the December holidays, we shared with all of you the work that went into our massive investigation on the conditions faced by migrant farmworkers in Canada, a situation that’s only been made worse by the pandemic. 

Reporter Hilary Beaumont, who worked on the piece alongside photographer Christopher Katsarov Luna, recently appeared on The Big Story podcast to talk about the latest developments, including news that a migrant farmworker died in January while quarantined before starting work on an Ontario farm.

Go here to listen to Hilary’s conversation with host Jordan Heath-Rawlings.

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