Bill Bennett says there are "legitimate criticisms" of the way the B.C. government has handled land transfers to First Nations impacted by the Site C dam, but adds there is only so much that can be done to keep the public in the loop.
Local hunters and anglers worry the quiet offers of Crown parcels—made to compensate First Nations for land lost to the $8.8 billion hydroelectric project—will cut off access to popular wilderness areas.
Bennett, the energy minister, said that while he understands those concerns, negotiations with First Nations must continue to be confidential.
"The Supreme Court of Canada and our Constitution make it clear: it's two governments sitting down to have a negotiation, a discussion," he told Alaska Highway News. "It's a government-to-government negotiation."
"There are people who don't like that, and I get that and respect everybody's point of view, but the fact of the matter is it's a government-to-government negotiation."
Bennett made the comments two days before a town hall meeting scheduled by the North Peace Rod and Gun Club to discuss the land transfers, which members say could amount to "giving away" access to backcountry recreational areas.
Gerry Paille, a member of the club's executive, said he has found thousands of hectares set aside under Section 16 of the Land Act, which allows the forests ministry to reserve Crown land for use by government agencies.
In the Muskwa-Kechika and Peace-Moberly Tract wilderness areas, the transfers have the potential to privatize trails and roads leading into other sections of Crown land, Paille said.
Bennett said he understands the group's frustration, saying he himself is a hunter.
"We have to do a much better job of talking to the local people and understanding the local implications for transferring a piece of Crown land to a First Nation," he said.
"Do we know everything about (that land)? We probably know what's going on in terms of mining and forestry and where the roads are, things like that. But do we know about local use, recreation, access to trails and hunting and fishing? I expect we don't, and I think that's where the Fort St. John (rod and gun) club really has a valid point."
But, he said the general public won't be getting a seat at the table on land negotiations.
"First Nations are not a stakeholder: everyone else is a stakeholder. That's the other side of the coin," he said.
He said Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad "is already working on a new policy" for Crown land transfers to First Nations.
"I know that we're going to be able to do a better job on that," he said. "I think we have to accept some legitimate criticism on the extent to which we've been able to consult with people and engage with people."
Bennett did not have a figure for how much land will be transferred in Site C compensation. The most advanced deal appears to be with the Blueberry River First Nation, which in 2013 identified around 3,500 hectares of Crown land of spiritual significance to its members.
The town hall meeting is scheduled for March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Pomeroy Hotel in Fort St. John. According to President Guy Lahaye, club has around 1,450 members.
The controversial Site C dam will flood around 83 kilometres of the Peace River valley.