Blueberry River First Nation is going back to court Monday to challenge the constitutionality of British Columbia’s management of natural resources, arguing that the approval of a significant amount of forestry, natural gas and other industrial activity has violated its treaty rights.
Blueberry River – which includes 505 people – says it is facing an environmental crisis on its traditional land, and accuses the NDP government of caving to oil and gas producers in the prolific Montney region that opposed a negotiated resolution.
The First Nation launched a challenge in 2015, but suspended it last fall in order to negotiate with the province on an agreement that would address cumulative effects from the intensive forestry and oil and gas development in their territory in northeastern B.C.
Blueberry River First Nation (BRFN) is a signatory of Treaty 8, which gave the government the right to approve development in the territory, but also a duty to protect the way of life on the Dane-zaa people.
“The core of our territory has been heavily impacted for the past 70 years by industrial development, and year after year, the footprint is larger and larger,” BRFN Chief Marvin Yahey said in an interview late Thursday. “It has impacted our rivers, our tributaries, our animals – the list goes on. So it is a big impact on our people who are in the heart of this development.”
He said the community had an interim agreement with the province and was working toward a settlement when the province suddenly “took a take-it-or-leave-it position” on oil and gas development, which left the BRFN council no choice but to go back to litigation.
The chief and council issued a statement early Friday that said 73 per cent of the BRFN is within 250 metres of a clear-cut patch, an oil or gas well, a processing plant, road, dam or other industrial infrastructure. Wildlife such as caribou and grizzly bears are disappearing, and people are afraid to drink the water or eat the fish caught in the area, it said.
“This is a historic case to establish that there is a limit to the government’s right to take up land in our Treaty 8 territory and that limit has been breached,” the statement from Mr. Yahey and the BRFN council said.
The suit, filed in the B.C. Supreme Court, seeks an order to halt provincial licensing of new oil and gas wells or forestry permits until the province can reach agreement with the BRFN for managing the consequences. That would include diminished activity in the Montney field, a massive producer of natural gas that will feed the liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat, to be built by a Royal Dutch Shell-led international consortium.
Two hydroelectric dams, W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon, lie within BRFN traditional territory, and construction on a third dam, Site C, is now under way. The First Nation has signed benefit agreements with BC Hydro and other companies, but wants a greater say on how much development is approved.
Sarah Plank, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the government is still determined to reach an out-of-court settlement.
“The issues we are discussing are difficult and complex, but we’ve made good progress and remain hopeful that we will still be able to reach a lasting resolution together,” she said in an e-mail.