2014 was quite the year for First Nations in Indian Country across Turtle Island. Many headlines were attributed to clashes between First Nations and the provincial and federal governments. Decisions made by governments have caused the chasm between them to grow with no sign or thought of reconciliation. 2015 will only bring an increase in opposition and protest as the governments have done nothing in the past year to show they are concerned for the constitutional rights of the First Nations and instead show an increased greed for the revenues they will receive from the resources and the need to live up to campaign promises. What were the most contentious issues in the province of BC during 2014 for First Nations?
The most significant event in BC this year was the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Tsilhqot’in decision. On June 27, 2014, a day that rocked this country with the court finding Tsilhqot’in title exists. The court decided that Tsilhqot’in have the exclusive right to decide how to benefit, use and control their Tsilhqot’in title lands. This case has huge implications for the province of BC as most of BC does not have treaties and is subject to aboriginal title.
The BC government negotiated a framework agreement with Tsilhqot’in on how they will go about determining Tsilhqot’in title. Time will tell how serious they are about resolving this important issue. The bigger test will be in how they will deal with the other First Nations that have aboriginal title in BC. Business is not as usual in BC and aggressive changes must happen soon or there will be long and costly court cases or other actions by First Nations without treaties.
Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin said that if governments were unsure of whether they had properly consulted and accommodated a First Nation that has not yet proved title, their consent should be sought for any development in their territories. This creates an even greater economic uncertainty in BC and BC must show leadership in working with each First Nation progressively and not just put on a show of meeting with all Chiefs collectively once a year. 2015 will be a precarious year for BC in setting the tone for resolving aboriginal title in a committed, good faith way.
In June 2014, the federal government approved the recommendations of the Joint Review Panel causing spontaneous protests in the streets of Vancouver. There are 18 court challenges against the Northern Gateway project, not all by First Nations. Premier Christy Clark contends that 5 rather vague and unenforceable conditions must be met before the project proceeds and First Nations in BC are adamant this project will not proceed. The Tsilhqot’in decision requires that the federal government go back and revisit this decision to ensure that there are no adverse affects on rights and title. There will be such effects but the federal government in its arrogance will not follow the direction of the highest court of the land. Instead they will fight it out in court. This is a project that is bound to explode if any construction starts before court cases are heard and one that many First Nations people will occupy the land before the pipelines go through.
Attention eased on the Gateway project as tensions mounted against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. As hearings took place where First Nations made their submissions on impacts on their rights and laws, protests were held before, during and after the hearings. There are also 7 court cases launched against this project at the present time. There are some First Nations that have entered into agreements with Kinder Morgan on this project but it depends on where the pipeline goes through their territory and what impacts the pipeline could have on their rights. For those opposed, they go through critical areas and pose a huge threat to their rights/way of life and represent a large barrier for this project to proceed.
The occupation of Burnaby Mountain to stop test drilling was a very revealing event that shows that Kinder Morgan has no social license in the territories of the Squamish, Tseil-Waututh, and Musqueam peoples. The arrest of Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs was a dramatic moment in the occupation only to find out soon after that Kinder Morgan had screwed up the GPS coordinates for the arrest area and charges were dropped against over 100 people who had willingly gotten arrested for the cause.
A bigger issue facing the BC government is burial/sacred sites of First Nations. This year Grace Islet was in the spotlight with an owner that wanted to build over a burial site. The archaeology branch provided permits with conditions that were breached when the owner placed footings in some of the burial sites. Again, many protests and public support for the First Nations increased pressure on the BC Government to resolve this. The year before it was the Musqueam burial sites in Marpole that dominated the news. Brewing in Sto:lo territory/Abbotsford is another situation. Corpus Management wants to do a $40 million project. Abbotsford city council denied the permit for development because of the burial sites. Site C is another hot spot as many burial sites will be flooded. The lack of the BC Government to fully deal with burial grounds either by legislation or policy continues to stop development or create contentious situations
In December the BC Government decided over the objections of Treaty 8 First Nations to go ahead with the Site C Dam that has a $9 billion price tag. Their territories will be destroyed and way of life impacted. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s called this an “incredibly stupid” decision and Chief Roland Wilson called it “a spit in the eye”. Four court cases have been launched so far and more to come. The implications of this decision are that treaty 8 First Nations are determined to fight this decision in every way they can and have the support of many First Nations.
The Site C decision impacts all First Nations in the province who want to build renewable energy projects as the opportunity to develop energy is minimized. This goes contrary to promises made by BC under the New Relationship and the Clean Energy Act. This was not a popular decision with First Nations and will continue to be a great source of conflict throughout 2015 unless ways are found to create more opportunities for First Nations to develop clean energy.
The Mount Polley mine disaster is one that First Nations are still dealing with in living with the environmental degradation that occurred knowing this area will never be the same again. The fact that the province did not act on the cause of the disaster when they had knowledge of the issue is a hard one for First Nations to take and destroys any trust they had with BC. First Nations have asked the company to leave the area and will never let them operate in their territories again. These kinds of disasters only reinforce First Nations’ confidence they have for protecting their territories and resources from mega projects.
LNG is another area of disruption in First Nation’s communities. Decisions on whether to go ahead with LNG is dividing First Nations communities into those that want jobs and money and those that want to protect Mother Earth. Such decisions have had devastating affects and the Huu-ay-aht vote in November shows how the issue is ripping families and communities apart.
The month of December saw Nisga’a, some Wet’su’weten bands, and the Tsimshian signing agreements to share revenue in LNG. Of course BC seeing the reluctance of First Nations to sign on made the offers more substantial with their “enhanced agreements”. For First Nations who do not have much money, the sums of money are attractive and the promise of jobs is a big lure.
There are three questions that come to my mind. One is how did those Nations seek the consent of their members? There was one young man who confronted the Nisga’s leadership at the legislature in Victoria as they were about to sign the agreement with BC and he asked that question as he had not been asked. Tsilhqot’in was very clear that rights are collective and it is the collective that must decide. First Nations and governments need to ensure this takes place as there could very well be a challenge from members if this is not done. The second question is did the First Nation insist on getting the consent of the First Nation from where the natural gas will come from-likely from fracking. First Nations need to support the right of consent of one another. Thirdly, did those Nations consider whether money will compensate First Nations when disasters from these projects occur and will it be enough to deal with the effects of that disaster? Can any amount of money compensate for loss of rights?
There are many uncertainties with LNG that create great risks of whether LNG will go ahead and if there will be the benefits promised to First Nations. As LNG companies collapse or not proceed with developments, it will be very interesting to see what 2015 brings for LNG.
All in all, the lack of regard for First Nations rights especially the right of consent has created a very volatile atmosphere in BC and 2015 will see how this volatility will play out around these very contentious issues. I always hope that we could be putting our energies into joint projects that we all agree on, positive events and achievements. Instead, the BC government pits itself knowingly against First Nations. It is hard to build trust and a positive relationship when you do not agree with one another on key issues like lands and resource use.
In a perfect world, each First Nation would be sitting with the BC Government and working out title issues, revenues, ownership of lands and resources so each First Nation would be economically independent of governments and living within their own laws and jurisdictions. Matters are escalating with First Nations and governments in BC and only real work, developing relationships based on trust and good faith, and a genuine political desire to resolve these disputes will de-escalate them.