New Blueberry River agreement will ‘affect everything’ in land stewardship

Written By Fran Yanor

“There’s no longer ‘business as usual,’ when it comes to doing [projects] within our territory.”

Judy Desjarlais

A new ground-breaking agreement between the B.C. government and Blueberry River First Nations will initiate “significant” change in land stewardship and resource development across the province, signalling it’s no longer business as usual, according to agreement signatories.

“In many ways, this is precedent setting and historic,” said Premier David Eby, at a press conference in Prince George last week announcing the agreement with Blueberry River. 

The Blueberry River implementation agreement lays out “a partnership approach” to resource stewardship, protecting ecosystems, wildlife habitat and old forests, as well as committing to ecosystem management for land use planning in culturally important areas, with a watershed-level plan also in the works. 

As well, new areas will be protected from industrial activity, while others will be constrained from development until a cumulative effects management strategy is developed. The agreement allots Blueberry River First Nations $200 million in restoration funding to heal the land from development, sets aside 650,000 hectares of protected land and commits to sharing $87 million in petroleum and natural gas revenue and provincial royalties, among other aspects.

“It’s going to affect everything.” 

Nathan Cullen

Eby said the agreement anticipates the direction the courts are moving on these issues and “creates momentum” for negotiating new agreements with First Nations across the province. 

A second agreement with four other B.C. Treaty 8 First Nations (Fort Nelson, Saulteau, Halfway River, Doig River) was also announced last week. 

Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais and B.C. Premier David Eby sign the Blueberry River Implementation Agreement in Prince George on Jan. 18. [Photo BC Government]

“Every time that we successfully work with a nation to reach agreement on these very difficult and challenging issues, we show that it can be done,” Eby said.

The agreement was a long time coming for Blueberry community members who watched for decades as their territory was “decimated” by development, Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais said in an interview following the announcement.

The agreement took 18 months of negotiations with the B.C. government, following a six-year court battle that culminated in a landmark BC Supreme Court decision in the nation’s favour. The ruling concluded the B.C. government violated Blueberry’s treaty rights – Treaty 8, signed in 1899 – due to the cumulative effects of resource development.

Industry ignored concerns

“Sites were being built, well pads being built, facilities being built, logging going on, and nobody was really questioning it,” said Desjarlais. “It really was just continuing to work as usual, because the Northeast is made out of natural resources. Very, very rich in all sectors. And when you have that much activity, that much work going on, nobody really stops to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look at what’s going on.’ Until this court case kicked off.”

“Industry didn’t take our concerns into consideration,” said long-time Blueberry River Councillor Sherry Dominic. who was on council when the nation began its lawsuit in 2015. “There’s areas where we told them not to go – no-go zones – and they just kept pushing those permits through.

“As long as [companies] got the permit, they were fine – so what, if Blueberry has concerns,” Dominic recalled. “That was how people thought. That was how industry thought.”

But Blueberry River members grew alarmed at the development. They commissioned an atlas of their territory to see the cumulative impacts. What they discovered was shocking: well sites, pipelines, seismic lines, roads, clear cutting, flare stacks and more had spread like blight across their land, erasing habitat and driving out wildlife. 

“‘So what, if Blueberry has concerns.’ That was how people thought.”

Sherry Dominic

That’s when the former Chief Marvin Yahey said something had to be done, according to Dominic. And reluctantly, without knowing their chances of winning, Blueberry River First Nations took its case to court.

Six years later, in 2021, the judge ruled in Blueberry’s favour. The court decision prohibited the provincial government from further permitting which unjustifiably infringed on the nation’s Treaty 8 rights and instructed the B.C. government to negotiate with Blueberry. 

Pre-engagement and relationships will be key

With the signing of the agreement, resource development permits are again being issued and activity on the land base is going ahead, Eby said. “But [permitting] is going ahead in a different way.” 

“The agreement is not a cap on production. It is a cap on land disturbance.”

David Eby

The agreement has specific provisions about the amount of land disturbance that is permitted related to oil and gas. 

[Map courtesy of BC Government]

“There’s no longer ‘business as usual,’ when it comes to doing [projects] within our territory,” said Desjarlais.

“This is not stopping business. This is a new way of building relationship and the first step into reconciliation. A lot of meaningful engagement [is] going to come out of this,” she said.

‘It’s going to affect everything’

“It doesn’t matter what you do. If you live in this province, the path taken with Blueberry and Treaty 8 is an absolute conscious directional change for the province and our relationships,” said Land Minister, Nathan Cullen.

Cullen’s ministry – Land, Water and Resource Stewardship – is newly created and tasked with implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) and the Blueberry court decision, among other significant land use and watershed management policy changes.

It’s too early to tell exactly how things will change following the Blueberry agreement, Cullen said, adding he suspects “it’s going to affect everything.” 

“A big rock just got dropped in the pond” and now, “we’ll watch the ripple effects out to government, to industry, and to other First Nations. Everyone’s going to look at this agreement and pull it apart and see what’s in it and then [apply it] in ways that make sense for them,” Cullen said.

‘People were nervous’

Cullen recalled back to time of the 2021 Blueberry court ruling when provincial cabinet had to decide whether to appeal the decision.

Eby was Attorney General. “We were looking at an injunction from the court restricting all further permitting and all activity on the land base for an indeterminate time until the appeals were all concluded,” Eby said.

“And we took a different path.” 

They chose negotiation, rather than litigation, the premier said. 

“We took a different path.”

David Eby

“People were nervous,” said Cullen. They wondered what an agreement with Blueberry would look like – First Nations rights, environmental protections, impact on businesses, and more. But they couldn’t ignore what the alternate path would bring. 

“That alternative scenario is so fraught,” Cullen said.

Challenging the ruling would necessitate two to four years of litigation, full suspension of resource activity in the region, additional conflicts, and the unknown effects of a government denying rights and title, while simultaneously purporting to champion the rights of Indigenous people.

The DRIPA was about deepening relationships, honoring treaties, signing new reconciliation agreements, with the intention of doing right ethically, legally, environmentally, and economically, Cullen said. 

The recent impact agreements and new land use stewardship changes will enable stakeholders to plan conservation at the landscape level, allow businesses to understand the rules of the games with greater certainty, and inform everyone who the decision makers are and how decisions get made. 

“As opposed to conflict, courts and uncertainty,” Cullen said.

To those who are worried about the long-term effects, Cullen advised, “It’s OK to feel nervous about change,” and “check the results. Check what happens in the end.” 

“It’s the right thing to do. We’ve never, never regretted expanding or enshrining rights to people,” he added.

Izwan Ismail, CEO of Petronas Energy Canada, a partner in LNG Canada, which delivers gas to the LNG project, has spent time in the Blueberry community. “I’ve grown to appreciate the generational view that they hold and the importance of protecting … the lands.”

Ismail acknowledged the polarization that can occur between differing interests on the land base, but said “I truly believe that by working together, we can find a balance … where we can be leaders in developing cleaner energy, at the same time, strengthening the economy, and advancing indigenous reconciliations.”

Relief all around

“What’s amazing is that that type of [agreement] 10 years ago would have had massive backlash. Massive. And now I’m hearing a sense of relief from industry, from First Nations, from conservation groups,” said Cullen.

For Blueberry Chief Desjarlais, the relief connects most poignantly to her grandmother, who witnessed the decimation of the land she loves over her lifetime.

“The heartbreak and the sadness that I’ve witnessed in my own grandmother’s eyes, about the impacts of development within our traditional territory [and] … how it was before development,” Desjarlais said. 

When development came, bit-by-bit over the last seven decades, then in an onslaught from the 1990s on, “it was business as usual. We were just a check mark on a little box that said, ‘Yep, we’ve engaged with First Nations,’ and ‘Yep, we’ve did our due diligence.’ And [industry] continued on with their activities, not listening to the impacts that some of the projects may have caused,” Desjarlais recalled.

“It was almost at the point of decimation, completely destructed.”

Blueberry members weren’t able to hunt or fish. Major development obliterated former landmarks of a good moose hunting area or a good fishing hole. 

“Now, we can preserve and restore those areas. We may not see it right now, but we’re going to see down the road, where they’ll be restored with a better plan in place,” said Desjarlais.

“This is a new way of building relationship and the first step into reconciliation.”

Judy Desjarlais

It will take years to restore Blueberry territory back to its natural state, said Councillor Dominic. “But at least we set the pathway for the next generation. So they’ll know, ‘OK, this is where we’re going, this is what we’re doing.’”

“From this day forward, our cultural and traditional values will come before anything else,” says Blueberry River Chief Judy Desjarlais. [Photo BC Government]

“It’s been a long road,” said Desjarlais. “Not necessarily for myself, but for the future [and for] former leaders of our nation, and the elders, and the many people that contributed to this case. Without their wisdom and knowledge, we wouldn’t be here.”

“I’m thankful that the elders spoke up, the members spoke up, and the former leadership took a stand,” she said.

Back when Cullen worked for an NGO in Africa in his early 20s, “it was a constant thing where I’d be thinking so hard to get the community together, and people would say, ‘If you want to walk quickly, go alone. If you want to walk far, you have to do it together.’”

Before the Blueberry and Treaty 8 agreements, “We were just walking quick, over and over again,” he said.

“[But] if you want to walk far, you have to do it together.”