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Evan Saugstad: Watching Treaty 8 court challenge with great interest

I n 2015, Blueberry River First Nation filed a treaty infringement claim against the province, citing ongoing industrial and private developments were “severely” curtailing their rights as defined within Treaty 8.
A federal government map showing the boundaries of Treaty 8.


In 2015, Blueberry River First Nation filed a treaty infringement claim against the province, citing ongoing industrial and private developments were “severely” curtailing their rights as defined within Treaty 8. This was followed in 2016 with an application for an injunction to stop many of these same activities within their traditional territory. 

In 2018, Blueberry River and the provincial government agreed to postpone the hearing while they attempted to negotiate an out of court agreement. 

In May of this year, Blueberry River announced it would terminate this agreement and now go back to the courts to settle. On May 24, the First Nation posted a statement outlining their concerns and some background information on the rationale of why they chose to go this route.

I do agree with their statement that it is long past due that treaty rights as defined within Treaty 8 are reconciled with the rights government has to “take up lands” as recorded within the treaty. This balance won’t be easy to determine, as historic treaties, which Treaty 8 is, are not easily reconciled with life in 21st Century.

At the same time, I don’t agree with all assumptions of industrial impacts being correctly defined or stated, and that it will be the proving or disproving of these impacts that will determine many of the outcomes of this trial.

For example, and I quote, “Grizzly bears and boreal caribou are extirpated from their historic range.” Grizzly bears are in no way extirpated from BRFN’s traditional territory, unless one believes that when cleared farmland has no bears, they can be considered extirpated from that specific area. They are also in no danger of being extirpated from this traditional territory. Interestingly, BRFN members can shoot grizzly bears, something the non-indigenous population is not allowed to do.

Although caribou are considered threatened, they also are not in danger of extirpation from the entire traditional territory. I do agree hunting should be off-limits until their population recovers, and that this can have an impact on treaty rights.

The statement also says, “Now more than 73% of our territory is within 250 meters of a clear-cut, oil and gas well, processing plant, road, dam or other industrial infrastructure. The rivers, streams and muskeg are drying up, mineral licks are disappearing. The wildlife we rely on are disappearing. There is almost nowhere left for us to go to hunt, trap, fish and be at peace in the places we have always known as Dane-Zaa people.”

This may be a simple statement of fact, as a GIS map using government’s own database can confirm this. 

It is the underlying assertion that because there has been some type of industrial disturbance, that the adjacent lands are now “devalued” or less important when it comes to ensuring our environment is being adequately managed.

Many other organizations have used this same point in their efforts to stop industry (mostly against natural gas) and in making their case that there is nothing left to manage in Northeast B.C. The assertion that all lands within 250 metres of a seismic line, a cut block, road, or other industrial development has negated their “wilderness values” is junk science, and, in my view, fake news.

Try walking though the forest adjacent to these sites and you will quickly figure out there is little to no discernible impact on these environments, unless the mere sound of a truck, a quad, power saw or drill rig diminishes the value and hence, your enjoyment. And if it does, I would then ask if you would put your life on your back and try getting there by walking and not by motorized means. 

It’s interesting that the often-repeated claims of there being no economic benefits being accrued to Blueberry River from these same developments are absent from these statements and backgrounders. Up until now, and in previous interviews and statements, BRFN made it perfectly clear it wished to see greater returns of the economic benefits from these industries to their community and to their people.

Simply put, this is an important case, and at its conclusion, we all will lose something. There will be no winners. There can’t be. 

Northeast B.C. will not go back to being 1898 and BRFN people will not go back to live a completely nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle. Neither BRFN nor the rest of us will disappear. If industry goes away, BRFN members will take as big a hit as everyone else.

More than 100 days has been scheduled for this case and a decision is not likely before 2020. There’s lots of time to think about it — and lots more to come as this drags on. 

In the end, I sure do hope that the meaning and intent of Treaty 8 is clarified, and for the betterment of us all.

Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and lives in Fort St. John.