A satellite image of once forested lands that are not brocken up by clearings and development

Blueberry River First Nations beat B.C. in court. Now everything’s changing

By Matt Simmons, The Narwhal, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Apart from a little pocket of land on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, Blueberry River First Nations territory is an industrial wasteland. At a walking pace, it only takes about three minutes to stumble onto some kind of development. It’s a land of pipelines, clearcuts and gas rigs. But things are about to change.

After winning a hard-fought case before the B.C. Supreme Court in 2021, the Treaty 8 nation reached a final agreement with the province on Jan. 18. The agreement charts a path forward from a past where the province excluded the community from resource decisions and infringed on the nation’s constitutionally protected rights. Two days later, B.C. signed agreements with four neighbouring nations: Doig River, Halfway River, Saulteau and Fort Nelson. Collectively, the agreements represent a way out of conflict and a shared goal to heal the land. 

“Here we are, in the 21st century, fighting to protect that treaty and fighting to uphold our Treaty Rights — that is totally backwards in my eyes,” Blueberry River Chief Judy Desjarlais told The Narwhal. “As long as the grass grows, the sun shines and the rivers flow … that treaty is law.”

“Now, we’re both on the same page,” she continued. “They know where I’m coming from, I know where they’re coming from and this is what it means to my people. And we want to be able to continue on this path where we’re both building a sustainable future.”

The agreements come with funding for restoration projects, promises of new protected areas, restrictions on future oil and gas development and more. Hailed as history in the making, the agreements reflect a new way of looking at cumulative impacts and a shift towards shared decision making and co-management of the natural world.

Here’s what we know so far about what this means for land, water, wildlife and communities.

How did we get to this?

For decades, the B.C. government encouraged industry to extract resources from Blueberry River’s 38,300 square kilometre territory. The story was the same for neighbouring nations — the province allowed companies to reap financial benefits from vast stretches of forests and underground deposits of shale gas. Those who lived there watched as their lands were gradually fragmented until the fish and wildlife depending on intact ecosystems all but vanished — and with them went the peoples’ way of life.

That way of life was meant to be protected. In 1899, Canada made a commitment to the Indigenous Peoples who lived in B.C.’s northeast region. Signing what’s known as Treaty 8, the colonial government promised to protect their rights to hunt, trap and fish. Blueberry River First Nations’ ancestors formally agreed to the treaty in 1900.

Fast forward to 2015, when their descendants took the province to court for infringement of those rights. Six years later, B.C.’s top court handed down a ruling that found the province guilty of breaching its obligations under the treaty. Notably, there was no single culprit — B.C.’s infringement was a product of cumulative impacts, the sum total of all the developments it permitted. In a departure from its typical adversarial approach to litigation, the province didn’t appeal the decision. 

At a press conference celebrating the recently signed agreement, Premier David Eby, who was attorney general when B.C. lost the case and chose not to appeal, noted “the path to reconciliation is through negotiation and not through litigation.”

“Full partnership and respect is the only way forward for the northeast and also for our entire province,” he said. “Not endless court battles and not short-term transactional relationships.”

A few months into negotiations, the nation and the province signed an interim agreement that earmarked $65 million for habitat and cultural restoration and greenlighted 195 forestry and oil and gas projects that had been stuck in limbo since the court ruling. While those projects were allowed to proceed because they were already on the books when the court made its decision, B.C. imposed a moratorium on any new proposals until it could reach a final agreement.

Completing the agreement and reaching agreements with the other Treaty 8 nations lifts that moratorium and sets guidelines for what comes next.

Why are agreements with Treaty 8 nations needed?

The impact of industry on Treaty 8 territories is on a scale hard to comprehend.

On Blueberry River territory, rivers run dry because the oil and gas industry uses so much water for its fracking operations. What’s left is often tainted from industrial activity, impacting moose populations and other species that drink and bathe in the rivers and lakes. Throughout the region, caribou herds that once numbered in the thousands now teeter on the brink of extinction.

Chief Desjarlais said bringing politicians and government officials onto the territory helped move the negotiations forward.

“You have to come and see it to believe it for yourself,” she said. “I can tell you all day long, and you’re never gonna get the picture unless you’ve actually in the midst of it, flying over top of it, walking in what used to be a forest and now it’s cut blocks. Once they came, they saw. Now they understand.”

Forestry and fossil fuels aren’t the only contributors to the poor ecological health of the region. When B.C. built the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1963, it flooded more than 1,700 square kilometres of forest, irrevocably changing the landscape. Add agricultural land to the mix and you start to get the picture.

In 2019, the province developed a cumulative effects framework to start figuring out how to keep this from happening again. The same year, it revised its Environmental Assessment Act, giving decision makers the power to put the brakes on individual projects while the province conducts regional assessments — to date, B.C. has yet to do one.

As well as its obligations to uphold Treaty Rights, B.C. is responsible for ensuring industrial development aligns with sustainable management of ecosystems and wildlife. One way the province is attempting to do so is through new land-use planning. Most of its existing plans date back to the 1990s and didn’t meaningfully include First Nations in the process.

Because Treaty 8 territories are so damaged, the region is an obvious starting point. Not that B.C. had much of a choice.

Why is this significant for Blueberry River and other Treaty 8 nations?

The agreements offer a kind of reset for the five nations — until now, the communities have borne the brunt of industry impacts and received next to nothing in economic benefits. For decades, the paradigm was strictly extractive.

“Doig River First Nation has been advocating for a meaningful role in decision-making in natural resource development in our territory for many years,” Doig River Chief Trevor Makahaday said in a statement. He noted the agreement sets the stage for “a new fiscal relationship between Treaty 8 First Nations and the province” that will “create economic certainty, heal the land and our people, and create overall stability for the region for generations to come.”

It’s a shift that takes B.C. a step closer to commitments it made in 2019 when it passed into law the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

“These agreements with Blueberry River First Nations and the Treaty 8 nations align with the [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by addressing Indigenous self-determination, cultural revitalization, and decision-making over traditional territories and resources,” Murray Rankin, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, told The Narwhal in an email.

“It’s been a hard battle, so today is a very, very good day,” Chief Sharleen Gale, from Fort Nelson First Nation, said at a press conference on Jan. 20. “Our people, the people of the Fort Nelson First Nation, have a history of defending our rights, including challenging bad industrial practices in court and standing up firmly to government to protect our rights.” 

“Going forward, we can really work together on restoring our relationship and doing things right so that future generations will continue to have places to go to hunt, fish and trap.”

“It’s been said that reconciliation is hard work — and it is,” Rankin said at the press conference. “Make no mistake, the hard work of implementing the agreements with Treaty 8 nations is going to be challenging. It’ll take the best in all of us. But that change is already well underway.”

Desjarlais said one important change is when nations are involved in decision-making. 

“We get to sit at the table with industry to see what their plans are going to look like and what kind of footprint they may or may not leave,” she explained. 

Because the court case set a major precedent in B.C., with implications beyond provincial borders, the recent agreements will be followed closely by other governments, Indigenous and settler alike.

What do the agreements mean for B.C.’s oil and gas sector?

As B.C. and Blueberry River worked on negotiations, uncertainty around what would happen next fueled speculation about the Site C dam and the oil and gas sector. Treaty 8 territories are at the heart of the Montney region, the source of the province’s shale gas reserves and where the $16 billion hydroelectric project is set to flood more than 100 kilometres of the Peace River. Critics of the BC Hydro dam link it directly to the province’s push to export gas. The energy-intensive process of extracting, transporting and compressing gas is often done by burning fossil fuels — without electricity from Site C, emissions from the sector would far exceed reductions targets set by the province.

As the final agreement was negotiated, lobbyists and industry proponents voiced their fears to senior B.C. officials. Theirs was a warning of impending economic collapse, including the loss of thousands of jobs. But those fears were unfounded. 

While the agreements between the five Treaty 8 nations and the province do come with restrictions on how the oil and gas industry can operate in the region, there are no limits to how much fossil fuel the sector can extract.

“The agreement is not a cap on production, it is a cap on land disturbance,” Premier Eby said at a Jan. 18 press conference in Prince George.

Industry proponents applauded the decision.

“It is our expectation that the necessary work can now proceed to ensure that the gas Petronas Canada delivers to the LNG Canada project is responsibly produced right here in B.C., benefiting the entire province and country,” Izwan Ismail, CEO of Petronas, a Malaysian oil and gas giant, said in a statement.

Ismail’s comments were echoed by industry groups, including the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.

“The agreement between the British Columbia government and Indigenous communities in northeast B.C. provides much-needed clarity to move forward with natural gas development,” Tristan Goodman, president and CEO of the association, said. “These historic agreements demonstrate a commitment from all parties to reconciliation and the environmentally conscious development of B.C.’s natural resources.”

The agreements come with restrictions on where companies can drill new wells. On Blueberry River territory, the plan is to encourage oil and gas activity in previously disturbed areas and limit any new disturbances to half the sector’s previous footprint.

“At a landscape-level, this is huge news,” Peter McCartney, climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal. “I think this goes a long way to reduce the localized impacts of fracking and the gas industry. In terms of B.C.’s overall gas supply and any constraints on the industry … I think it’s unlikely that this will hold them back.” 

The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission declined an interview but told The Narwhal to check back in the coming weeks as the details are still being worked out.

How does this impact land, water and wildlife on Blueberry River First Nations territory?

B.C. noted in its announcement more than 650,000 hectares of Blueberry River First Nations territory will be protected from new forestry and oil and gas development. That protection could come in the form of new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, according to the press release. Chief Desjarlais called that land “no-go zones”.

“Some of those areas are traditional and ceremonial areas for our nation, our people,” she said. “A lot of stories that come from our Elders and our ancestors have generated from these no-go zones. For me to know that there will never be activity there, that makes me feel really good, because that legacy will continue on in our future generations.”

“We’re willing to work to move forward, but these areas absolutely need to be protected.”

B.C. also promised a revised ecosystem-based approach to land-use planning, including watershed-level details aimed to protect and recover water, river systems and wildlife features. Over the next three years, four plans will be developed, focusing on the areas of highest priority to the nation.

The province announced a pot of money to support restoration work. By 2025, B.C. will provide Blueberry River with $200 million on top of the $65 million already allocated. Other initiatives include support to launch a community stewardship, monitoring and guardian program

“It will never be back to what it once was,” Desjarlais said. “But we can start by restoring and trying to bring back where some of our landmarks were, start restoration in the major impact areas.”

Blueberry River will also receive $87.5 million over three years, plus an opportunity to start getting economic benefits from industry and a share of provincial royalty revenues in the next two fiscal years. 

B.C. said it will also set up a multi-year shared restoration fund for other Treaty 8 nations, but the amount has not yet been announced. Like Blueberry River, the nations will also have more money to play with through revenue-sharing agreements. 

The agreements also rolled out changes to forestry in the region, promising to reduce the annual allowable cut in the regional timber supply area by around 350,000 cubic metres per year and ending the use of aerial herbicides.

“This is huge for the boreal forest in northeast B.C.,” McCartney, with the Wilderness Committee, said. “The Blueberry River First Nations and all the Treaty 8 nations have our utmost gratitude for the work that they have done to get to this point where we can start healing the land and restoring the ecosystems that have been so heavily damaged.”

“I can’t imagine what our ancestors are feeling right now,” Desjarlais said. “But I’m sure they can rest easy knowing that what they signed years and years ago is still law and it’s still moving forward in protecting our cultural and traditional values.”

What comes next?

Because none of the agreements B.C. signed with Treaty 8 nations were publicly available prior to publication, many details will be revealed in the coming weeks. The agreement with Blueberry River includes a provision for an annual review of progress and a formal review after three years. B.C. and the nation agreed to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible for forestry and oil and gas.  

Permit applications that were paused during the negotiations will now move forward, with the province planning to push them through within the next 60 days. A revised process to handle new applications will be set up by April.

Chief Desjarlais said industry may be starting back up but it’s no longer business as usual.

“Especially in northeastern British Columbia, where we’re rich in resources, we had to come to find this thing called balance. And I think we’ve found the path.”

Top image credit: Screenshot of Blueberry River area from Google Maps

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