First Nations unfairly caught in 'fiasco' over caribou recovery, mayor says

Councillors in Taylor are condemning the division and outrage misdirected at local First Nations over caribou recovery plans for the South Peace, but say the province continues to bungle public consultations.

The district is expected to release a statement this week denouncing racism after pressure from the chiefs of West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. At the same time, the district will send a questionnaire about two draft caribou recovery agreements back to the province, calling it long on rhetoric but short on detail.

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"The problem with this is that they're telling us what they're doing and asking us whether we support it," Mayor Rob Fraser said at a council meeting Tuesday.

"They've decided on something that likely will work and then they've dictated it to us, and they've put a questionnaire in front of us.

"I disagree, not with the premise of the questions, but the fact we weren't involved in the development of that which will potentially impact us."

West Moberly and Saulteau have been negotiating agreements with the provincial and federal governments that will curb industrial and backcountry access in areas around Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge to save half a dozen endangered herds from extirpation. The agreements also call for financing for maternal penning, habitat restoration, predator control programs, as well as a new indigenous-led environmental stewardship program.

Negotiations have continued despite repeated calls by local governments, MLAs, and industry for more than a year to be included, as well as a study on how the agreements will impact the region's economy. More than 30,000 people signed a petition calling for a stop to the negotiations.

The province has said it has a constitutional obligation to work with the two First Nations under Treaty 8 to draft the deals, prompted last year after the federal government declared the herds in the South Peace to be facing an imminent threat to their survival and recovery. Numbers in the central group of the southern mountain caribou herds around Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge have dropped from between 800 to 1,000 in the 1990s, to around 230 today.

Though the province was honing in on the success of an established maternal penning and wolf cull program in the region, it also put the bands under a gag order that prevented them from talking to other political leaders in the region, Fraser noted. At the same time, the province was paying lip service to local leaders who had been pressing for more information over months of conference calls, he said.

"They were going to dictate this to us and they got caught," Fraser said.

A wolf cull and maternity penning program has already seen higher birth rates, falling death rates, and rising herd populations in the region over the last five years, according to government scientists.

Still, the federal government has been pressured by environmental groups to issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act that would effectively shut down all industrial activity in the region. The province says its partnership agreement with the two bands, as well as a separate agreement with Canada under the Species At Risk Act will avoid that.

But the questionnaire sent to Taylor is short on details and filled with misleading questions that have drawn harmful and hateful comments from the public, officials said. The questions also point toward a feared foregone conclusion that the drafts will be rubber stamped without incorporating public feedback, they said.

"At the 11th hour and 59th minute, the province rolls this out and says, 'The feds, they're just going to shut down the whole country if you guys don't agree.' Holy, talk about putting your back against the wall," Fraser said.

"What happens when people get cornered? They lash out, and unfortunately they're lashing out at the wrong group of people."

Fraser said he hasn't personally seen or heard hateful comments directed toward First Nations regarding the plans, but noted he's heard from indigenous leaders about them. First Nations are part of the solution to caribou recovery, but they've been caught up in a "communication nightmare" created by the province, Fraser said.

"This whole fiasco has not been the fault of the First Nation communities and the residents there. It's a communication nightmare driven by the bureaucrats at the province," Fraser said.

"This penning program and to the guardian program, predator management, this should be a success story. But in turn, this whole communication nightmare, has turned it into a hate exercise by some people in the province. This questionnaire is not helping with that in any way shape or form."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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