Northeastern British Columbia is rich in a diversity natural resources, which includes an abundance of Natural Gas, the extraction of which has become a 40 year project for PETRONAS Canada. Much of these resources lie on Indigenous lands but, it seems, as Amnesty International has claimed in a report titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind, that the Indigenous people are “excluded from a meaningful role in decision-making and bear a greater burden, including loss of culture and traditional livelihoods.” While they may acquiesce and sign benefit agreements, it appears that in reality the indigenous people are dealing with the kind of ‘offers they cant refuse.’ As Blueberry River First Nation (BRFN) trapper, rancher, hunting guide and logger Brian Clarke notes pointedly, but without criticizing the oil and gas companies whom it seems first encroached on his trap lines and then provided him work ploughing snow or moving earth, “if you can’t beat them, you join them … And you can’t beat them.”
The amnesty report shows how the consequences go beyond environmental and land tenure considerations, deep into the very social fabric of these native communities. In summary, the report concludes, “The model of resource development, particularly the reliance on large numbers of transient workers, widens inequalities between Indigenous and nonIndigenous people and between women and men, negatively impacting Indigenous families’ access to food, housing and social services and increases risks of violence.” The report specifically criticizes government for failing to allocate sufficient resources to services necessary to meet these needs.
Natural Gas extraction (fracking) is only one of many resource activities, and PETRONAS only one of many corporate entities at work causing ‘disturbance’ in the Peace River area of Northeastern BC. These disturbances are evidenced in great detail in the David Suzuki Foundation 2016 report titled Atlas of Cumulative Landscape Disturbance in the Traditional Territory of Blueberry River First Nations. While there are many parties involved, it is PETRONAS that has recently and notably been the beneficiary of a British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) decision that exemplifies the powerful corporate/ administrative forces that the small native communities have to contend with. PETRONAS was given unprecedented retrospective approval for two massive dams that were built on Blueberry River First Nation (BRFN) land without obtaining legally required permissions and exemptions. BRFN’s legal counsel Maegan Giltrow has said that this decision has been made in the face of Blueberry’s repeatedly expressed concerns about the diminishing water quality and quantity.
According to BRFN lands manager Norma Pyle, the BRFN has been repeatedly sounding alarm bells to the Crown about the diminished water quantity in their territory, “We have been watching lake levels drop, muskeg disappear, mineral licks dry up and streams reduce to small versions of their former selves.” The Blueberry River First Nations submitted detailed commentary and evidence to the EAO against the granting of the post factum exemptions to PETRONAS, but to no avail. It is in this context that the BRFN recently withdrew of a wider treaty infringement claim against the Province of British Columbia alleging that the cumulative effects of industrial development on its territory had breached the government’s obligations under Treaty 8.
Sandy Carpenter, Sam Adkins and Josh Smith note that after consultation and negotiation between the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), BRFN and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, the parties signed a Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment Interim Measures Agreement, which prohibits or restricts new surface disturbance in defined critical areas of BRFN territory, while managing development activities in other specified areas. This interim agreement came into force on July 16, 2018. Without knowing the mitigation afforded the BRFN by the terms of the agreement, I venture to suggest that with two previous court decisions against them, one can understand that they might have felt that you just cant beat them.