Heard at the Dawson Creek caribou consultations

Caribou consultations across the BC Peace continued in Dawson Creek last Thursday.

Jim Webb, a policy advisor for the West Moberly First Nations, was one of the panelists, explaining the First Nations position.

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“Both West Moberly and Saulteau were told by their elders around 1970 that they had to quit hunting caribou because of the WAC Bennett Dam, populations were declining, and the elders said they would continue to decline because the route across that valley couldn’t be crossed anymore, so the herds were cut off and they would shrink,” he said.

He said the West Moberly band got involved in the early 2000’s, with projects like the First Coal mine development in the Burnt Pine caribou habitat. They ultimately went to court in 2009 over the matter.

“The court trial and the appeal of the court trial resulted in a decision where the appellate court of BC told BC that the rights of the Treaty 8 people, the Dunne-za in this case, are not inferior to the right of the crown’s, that when the provincial government or federal government are considering a decision that has the potential to affect the way of life of the Dunne-za, that they have to find a way to balance what they want to do and the ongoing right of the Dunne-za to use those lands to sustain a way of life, which is protected in the treaty and in the constitution.”

They embarked on a maternal penning project, which has seen results.

“In the six years, we’ve increased the herd in the Klinse-Za area from a low of 16 to the current population, which is 81. That’s a significant increase,” said Webb.

“When we set out to do the maternal penning program, we worked with the federal government and the provincial government. We offered to work with the municipal government of Chetwynd, they declined. We offered to work with industry, and some of the industry decided to support us and were cooperative with us, others didn’t.”

Webb said the West Moberly and Saulteau had a right by treaty to be in the agreements, but municipal governments don’t necessarily, in response to many questions from the audience on why local governments were kept out until after the draft agreements were released.

“We have a treaty, and the treaty has been interpreted by the courts of BC now to say that our rights are equal to the right of the crown, and we have a right to determine certain things for ourselves — food security and cultural security,” he explained. “From our perspective, municipal governments, which are a creation of the provincial government, are sitting at the table.”

Much of the question and answer session reflected the differences in opinions in this stance.

“First Nations are not the only ones who care about the caribou in the area,” said South Peace MLA Mike Bernier. “This whole process has been a sham, a slap in the face to the people in the area.”

“If this is consultation — holy Christ,” exclaimed Dawson Creek Councillor and former MLA Blair Lekstrom.

“We all live here together, we all care about the land, we care about each other, and it isn’t us or them, or our people or those people, it’s us people together. These are not my caribou, these are not first nations caribou, they’re our caribou,” he said to a standing ovation from the audience.

“Anybody, please tell me when we achieve reconciliation. When will that be? What will it take?” Lekstrom asked the speakers.

Webb had an answer.

“When reconciliation in relation to land and resource issues will be achieved is when First Nations can say they have free, prior, and informed consent over resource decisions that have the potential to affect their culture, their food security, and their way of life, because that is what the treaty promises.”

Webb noted they just want to protect their way of life.

“We do not ask for absolute power,” he said. “What we’re asking for is adequate protection to stabilize the herd, begin a process of recovery, that if it continues, will allow us to hunt caribou perhaps 70 years in the future on a sustainable basis.

“We want to have caribou on those mountains as long as those mountains are there, and as long as we are here.

“We’re only meeting 16% of our food security needs by hunting,” noting the decline in moose as well, noting that they do not agree that reducing moose population will help caribou. “It’s true across Treaty 8.”

And much of the questioning dealt with the lack of consultation for locals, with the agreement seemingly set in stone.

“There’s significant consequences that will happen to people who live in the area, but the plans don’t show that anyone knows the probability of success,” said one audience member. “I don’t think we can meaningfully provide input without knowing that, and also without the socioeconomic analysis.”

“We don’t expect to have a veto, but we do expect to have a voice at the table,” said another.

The Concerned Citizens for Caribou Recovery presented a petition of over 30,000 names to the speakers on stage. (They delivered that petition in-person to Victoria this week).

Potential compensation or supports because of the impacts, speaker David Muter of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said, are dependent on the findings of the socioeconomic analysis.

“This whole endeavor is snakebit from the start, and I don’t know how you move forward constructively,” said Dawson Creek Councillor Jerimy Earl. “As somebody who grew up in Mackenzie, what happens when a mill closes, there is no amount of funding, government programs that you can provide that is going to fill the gap in that community.”

For more on some of the presentations made by speakers, check out our recap of the previous consultation in Chetwynd.

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