Blueberry River First Nation eyes restoration, limited development in land agreement with B.C.


The agreement carries strong criteria to protect ecosystems, wildlife habitat and old forests, says Chief Judy Desjarlais, Blueberry River First Nations.

A view of the Peace River Valley, within the Blueberry River First Nation's civil claim area under Treaty 8.. A view of the Peace River Valley, within the Blueberry River First Nation's civil claim area under Treaty 8.. Photo by Northern BC Tourism/Montana Christianson

The province of B.C. and Blueberry River First Nations have struck an agreement to protect 6,500 square kilometres of land, set limits on new industrial disturbances and set aside $200 million for restoration projects.

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Premier David Eby and Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais were among dignitaries to unveil the final agreement in Prince George Wednesday that finalizes negotiations begun in October of 2021 with an interim agreement that put the brakes on new development in the First Nation’s Treaty lands. The exception was for projects that had already been approved.

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The province decided not to appeal a 2021 B.C. Supreme Court decision in which Justice Emily Burke ruled that the cumulative impacts of industrial development in the Blueberry River First Nation’s territory infringed the First Nation’s rights under Treaty 8 — which represents six First Nations in northeastern B.C. — and prohibited the authorization of new activities.

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“I have never dreamed to see this moment,” Desjarlais said of the historic occasion.

Desjarlais recalled a story her grandmother told her about how she watched their traditional way of life “diminished before her eyes … as the land, of which our way of life depends, broken apart piece by piece,” by the logging, oil and gas drilling and industrial development.

For the First Nation, the agreement represents a process to restore their traditional ways of life for future generations and offer a brighter future for the next seven generations.

“There is no longer business as usual when it comes to doing projected plans within our territory,”  said Desjarlais.

New industrial development will require engagement and relationship building as the First Nation and province embark on new land use plans within the Blueberry River’s territory, she said.

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“This is not stopping business, this is a new way of building relationships and the first step into reconciliation and a lot of meaningful engagement (will) come out of this,” Desjarlais said.

 “There is no longer business as usual when it comes to doing projected plans within our territory.” Blueberry First nation Chief Judy Desjarlais says: “There is no longer business as usual when it comes to doing projected plans within our territory.” Photo by Stuart McNish/Special to the Sun /PNG

The agreement establishes a new, co-management approach for natural resources within the Blueberry River First Nations’ civil-claim area, which is composed of a wide, almost comma-shaped swath of land around Fort St. John that is intersected by the Alaska Highway.

The agreement includes transitional measures over the nest 18 months and permanent structures within three years to guide industrial development.

And the deal provides $87.5 million over three years to the Blueberry River First Nations as a financial contribution to implement its processes, along with opportunities for increased revenue sharing from oil and gas activity.

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Any new industrial development will be restricted under terms of the interim measures, which will reduce timber harvests by 350,000 cubic metres per year, about 15 per cent of the region’s annual allowable harvest, and limit new natural-gas development to 750 hectares per year, with just 250 hectares in what is considered the highest priority land for protection to the First Nation.

The agreement establishes co-management measures for wildlife management and to begin restoration of existing industrial disturbances that have fractured habitat for species such as caribou, moose and grizzly bears.

The deal also sets the terms for the province to begin issuing new permits that were halted by Burke’s ruling and offer certainty to industry within the region, according to the province.

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Eby said the province took the approach that “the path to reconciliation is through negotiations,” rather than “endless court battles and not short-term transactional relationships.”

He added that he expects the agreement with the Blueberry River First Nations to bring predictability and certainty to the regional economy and set an important precedent in its relationships with other First Nations around the province.

“I look forward to future announcements and good news in the coming days with other First Nations under Treaty 8,” Eby said.

While the agreement will slow down industrial development, industry representatives welcomed the fact that its terms will now be put into place.

The agreement is “a positive step forward,” that will enable “responsible development of B.C.’s rich natural resources,” according to Lisa Baiton, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

And the group representing petroleum exploration firms said the agreement “provides much-needed clarity to move forward with natural gas development,” according to its CEO Tristan Goodman.

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