Northern B.C. aboriginal leaders speak in unified voice for ‘fair’ consultation

Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kirsten Brynelsen
Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kirsten Brynelsen

VANCOUVER – People once paddled great distances to set up fishing camps on the land where Liz Logan’s family has lived for generations in northern British Columbia. Now Tsinhia Lake has yellowed, the fish have died and her family must carry in bottled water to drink.

The damage from oil and gas industries has prompted Logan, chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation, to help form an alliance with other aboriginal leaders against the provincial government. The signatories say concerns about massive developments in their territories are not being addressed.

The group, composed of leaders from the B.C. coast to the Alberta boundary, announced its formation on Tuesday with the release of an open letter to Premier Christy Clark.

“We’re trying to get their attention. We’re calling for this government to come back and (agree to) a relationship, because right now there is no relationship,” Logan said.

It would be as if the government came and took out someone’s backyard pool without asking, she said.

Chiefs of 10 northern B.C. First Nations have signed the letter, which says the province has ignored significant legal victories by aboriginals and is blocking them from managing their own territories.

The letter was sent ahead of talks this week in Vancouver between First Nations and B.C. politicians on the topic of the historic Tsilhqot’in land deal.

The June 2014 court ruling granted aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land, but the chiefs say they’ve seen little change in how the province deals with their claims.

“This government is basically refusing to look at the big picture of all the developments that are happening in all of our respective territories,” Logan said.

Among the projects of concern are proposed liquefied natural gas facilities and the Site C hydroelectric dam, which entered its first phase of construction in July.

The open letter lists three major reasons the alliance believes First Nations’ interests are threatened: no “new relationship” despite successful court challenges, the government’s refusal to assess potential industrial impacts on the environment, and a provincial review process that allows industry to set the agenda for development.

“We are not opposed to development,” reads the letter, which calls on the government for a more civil, legally consistent and logical approach to project implementation.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said its members are being given “lip service” and will raise those concerns at meetings over the coming days, said vice-president Bob Chamberlin.

He said First Nations have given up enough benefits for British Columbians.

“When will their rights finally be first and foremost?” he asked.

Chamberlin said the alliance’s formation is a strong signal that no progress has been made despite repeated meetings with government officials.

Clark said Tuesday she would refrain from addressing the issues until after this week’s talks.

“It is always our goal to make sure we are consulting and accommodating First Nations fairly, in a way that even goes above and beyond the law of the country,” she said at an unrelated news conference.