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‘The Crown promised’: First Nation taking province to court over treaty rights

Last Updated May 27, 2019 at 7:43 am PDT

The Site C Dam location is seen along the Peace River in Fort St. John, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Blueberry River First Nation is taking the B.C. government to court over treaty rights it says the province is violating

Chief of Blueberry River First Nation says his people's traditional way of life is being squashed by big industry

The First Nation argues the rights protected by a 120-year-old treaty are being dismissed in favour of industry

The Blueberry River First Nation of B.C.’s Peace Region is challenging the constitutionality of development in its territory arguing the rights protected by a 120-year-old treaty are being dismissed in favour of industry.

For thousands of years, the Dane-Zaa people of the BRFN hunted bison and game, fished the lakes and rivers and survived as nomads in the harsh northern reaches of our province.

Today, the Nation re-launches a court case against the province in B.C. Supreme Court, claiming the cumulative effects of development have encroached on treaty rights and put the health and security of its people at risk.

The Nation says it’s been cornered by government and industry, bulldozing their way of life and destroying what’s left of traditions that are supposed to be protected by a treaty with the Crown, Chief Marvin Yahey explains.

“The Yahey trapline is like a desert because all the old growth timber there [is] clear cut,” he says, adding thousands of abandoned gas wells, flare pits, roads and clear cuts have disturbed wildlife movement and contaminated water.

Reconciliation failed

Yahey says the previous Liberal government approved development at a rate that showed a clear preference for the needs of industry. For a while, he said, the NDP seemed open to working through a process of reconciliation and progress was being made.

“At first, the current government was willing to listen to Blueberry’s concerns,” he says.

He believes pressure from oil and gas caused the government to become more hard-lined, so the nation is re-opening the court case from 2015, which it suspended in good faith last year.

“Recently the government has taken a hard stance as a take-it-or-leave-it position. They took the oil and gas route,” he says. “We didn’t want to go down this route,” he adds, regarding the legal case.

The NDP approved the continued construction of the Site C Dam in 2017, despite the hopes of many in the Peace Region who wanted to see the project cancelled to protect the traditional territory of First Nations in the area.

At the time, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called the approval a “slap in the face” for First Nations.

On top of the loss of drinking water, trap lines and territory, the nation says cultural and spiritual sites are disappearing as well.

“Northeastern B.C. has been the cash cow of the province for many decades,” says Yahey. “At whose expense? It’s at the Dane-Zaa, the Blueberry people here … it’s time for the province to listen to Blueberry’s concerns.”

‘The land can’t heal on its own’

Thirty years ago, Yahey says he could drink the water, hunt the land, pick berries and trust he would have enough to survive.

Today he says the rate of development has so greatly outpaced clean-up and revitalization that nearly 75 per cent of the Dane-Zaa traditional territory is within 250 metres of an “industrial disturbance” and approximately 84% is within 500 metres of an “industrial disturbance.”

“On top of this, areas that were once core territory for the Nation are now agricultural land – 28% of BRFN’s territory is zoned or converted to Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR),” the nation says in a statement.

“We can’t waste another day of continuing to develop and not take care of past mistakes … the land can’t heal on its own,” says Yahey.

As of May 2018 there were 10,672 dead oil and gas wells in B.C., according to a B.C. Auditor General’s report that concluded the government has “not effectively managed the environmental and financial risks” of those non-operational sites.

“The Crown promised our treaty rights would be protected as long as the sun shines and the river flows and we don’t see that today,” says Yahey.