Industrial activity has profoundly affected the Blueberry River First Nations in northern B.C. A recent Atlas of Cumulative Landscape Disturbance, compiled by the First Nations, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Ecotrust, found that 73 percent of the area inside its traditional territory is within 250 metres of an industrial disturbance and 85 percent is within 500 metres.
In other words, in much of the territory, which once supported healthy moose and caribou populations, it is difficult, if not impossible, to walk half a kilometre before hitting a road, seismic line, or other industrial infrastructure.
Local caribou populations are threatened with extinction mainly because of habitat disturbance caused by industrial activity and ensuing changes to predator-prey dynamics.
Scientific literature suggests that a natural functioning landscape with species including large predators requires a maximum density limit of 0.6 kilometres of linear disturbances—roads and seismic and transmission lines—per square kilometre. The report revealed Blueberry River has 2.88 kilometres of linear disturbance per square kilometre, totalling 110,300 kilometres—including 45,603 kilometres of seismic lines constructed during the past 10 years, almost eight times the length of the Trans-Canada Highway from Vancouver to Halifax.
Foundation science-projects manager Rachel Plotkin recently toured the area with Chief Marvin Yahey and lands manager Norma Pyle. They showed her clearcuts in caribou calving grounds, hunting camps dissected by pipelines, and giant oil-processing plants where elders once picked blueberries.
“Development has extinguished our traditional way of life on wide areas of our land,” Yahey said, noting most of the damage has occurred during the past 30 years.
Plotkin said travelling across the landscape was surreal. “From far back, it looked like a forest ecosystem, though dotted with farmers’ fields,” she said. “But no matter which road we drove down, we saw signs of the extraordinarily high levels of industrial activity: a pumpjack peeking from amid the trees, a sign on the road warning of a high-pressure pipeline hidden below, a sour-gas flare above the treeline, a forestry clearcut, a processing plant or a pipeline riser.”
As a last resort, Blueberry River First Nations brought a civil claim against the B.C. government in 2015, asserting that cumulative industrial impacts in their territory have displaced and prevented people from carrying on traditional activities assured them by the Crown under Treaty 8.
The B.C. government responded to the report by saying it’s working on a cumulative-effects framework. “We recognize the importance of assessing, monitoring and managing the cumulative effects of resource development,” B.C. Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad wrote in a statement to the Dawson Creek Mirror. “Several attempts have been made to get Blueberry River First Nations involved in Northeast cumulative effects (management) programs.”
This response is lacking on several levels. To start, it attempts to address an immediate ecological crisis by proposing that the community engage in ongoing, sometimes years-long processes. As Chief Yahey told the Mirror, “Despite raising these concerns directly with the premier and with provincial ministers, there has been no meaningful response to this critical threat. Instead, the province continues to approve major industrial undertakings in our territory, including major fracking operations and the Site C dam, willfully ignoring that each new approval brings our unique culture closer to extinction.”
For the ministry in charge of reconciliation to respond defensively rather than open doors to better cooperation with Blueberry River is troubling. Although the government says it recognizes the importance of managing cumulative effects, the report’s map of industrial activity reveals that if government has a sustainable-management regime, it’s broken.
The people of Blueberry River recently shared with government their Land Stewardship Framework, which outlines a path to sustainable land management, protection, and restoration. What they need from government now is immediate action to protect critical areas and to be included in decision-making. Process without interim measures can be a trap—a talk-and-frack situation.
No one should have to put up with such high levels of destructive industrial activity, especially when they aren’t given a say in decisions. When governments have committed to reconciliation with First Nations, they need to change their decision-making regimes and recognize that First Nations have the right and responsibility to make decisions about how their traditional territories are managed, now and into the future.