MLA Pat Pimm slammed BC Hydro and the provincial government for an “insulting” lack of transparency, borrowed a phrase from Hillary Clinton, and got in a barb about the Agricultural Land Reserve in an hour-long presentation on land transfers to First Nations set to lose territory to the Site C dam.
It’s the latest development in the years-long process of compensating Aboriginal people impacted by the $8.8-billion hydroelectric project and its 83-kilometre reservoir.
The issue emerged this spring after a hunter and anglers group noticed parcels the provincial government had flagged for potential transfers for Site C.
The land transfers have been a source of tension between the Peace Region’s six Treaty 8 First Nations and backcountry users including fishermen and hunters, who say the transfers could privatize access to adjacent Crown land. Three-hundred people attended a public meeting on the issue in March.
Pimm, who left the B.C. Liberal caucus following his arrest on an assault charge this summer, has helmed a 20-member MLA First Nations Stakeholder Advisory Committee created in May.
The committee includes hunters, anglers, grain producers, ranchers and trappers who use backcountry Crown land. Pimm said the committee sent invitation letters to First Nations but received no response.
In a presentation to the Peace River Regional District board Oct. 13, Pimm said he was fed up with the lack of information around which lands are on the table for Site C transfers.
“I don’t think it’s (just) an insult to the people of the Peace River Regional District, I think it’s an insult to the people of the province—that there’s no public transparency in any of these discussions,” he said. “We all live in this province, so I think we should all have input into the process.”
While the ministry did not provide exact details on which lands are up for transfer, Pimm found 32 parcels of Crown land totalling tens of thousands of acres flagged for use by government—some potentially for Site C-affected First Nations. Site C will inundate 5,000-12,000 acres of First Nations traditional territory by Pimm’s estimates.
Any parcels identified for use by government are options for First Nations to consider, but not all would be transferred.
“The lack of transparency within government and within BC Hydro on these transfers is absolutely deplorable and an insult to the 98 per cent non-First Nations population in the Peace Country,” a copy of Pimm’s presentation to the Peace River Regional District reads (Pimm later noted Hillary Clinton’s use of “deplorable” to describe Donald Trump supporters.)
“Keep in mind there are approximately 70,000 residents in the Peace Country with only 1,721 First Nations living on the reserve lands, which is approximately 2.4 per cent of the region’s residents.”
First Nations people account for around 13.5 per cent of Northeast B.C.’s population when off-reserve populations are taken into account.
While Pimm’s committee can give input on access issues related to land transfers, Canada’s constitution requires government to negotiate directly with First Nations.
Earlier this year, Energy Minister Bill Bennett said there were “legitimate criticisms” of the process, but said the government is required to hold confidential negotiations.
Pimm said he did not believe highlighting First Nations’ minority status would create tensions between First Nations and non-First Nations people.
“We need to accommodate everybody. You can’t accommodate two per cent and have 98 per cent not accommodated,” he said. “That’s the point of my discussion and that’s what I’m standing behind. I represent everybody in my region: First Nations, non-First Nations alike. They’re all my constituents. If I feel the government is not standing up and representing the general population, it’s my job as MLA to make sure my constituents are heard.”
“When you’re not transparent about something, it creates an awful lot of distrust, and that’s what’s happened over the years. As long as things are protected, like access, and people know what’s going on, I don’t think there’s as big a disconnect as people might think there is.”
He also took the opportunity to criticize the province’s Agricultural Land Commission.
“We know a local farmer can’t give five acres to his kid, we know that, because the ALC won’t let you. But we’ll give 312,000 acres away? Our committee is a little bit stuck on some of (those) points.”
In 2014, Pimm was forced to apologize for comments made in emails obtained by the Globe and Mail in which he used the word “Indians.”
‘This practice is changing’
In an Oct. 12 letter included in Pimm’s presentation, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Rustad said the committee’s concerns would be addressed, adding access to other Crown land would not be cut off by land transfers.
“Our practice in the past has been to treat negotiations with First Nations as confidential and, therefore, have not fully engaged stakeholders, the public and local governments. This practice is changing,” he wrote. “We are implementing new engagement principles that serve as clear instructions to our negotiators.”