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B.C. signs ‘historic’ deal with First Nation after court fight over treaty rights

PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. — A B.C. First Nation and the province have signed what the government is calling a historic agreement towards jointly managing land, water and resource development.

The agreement, signed Tuesday with the Blueberry River First Nations in northeastern B.C., includes a $200-million restoration fund and timelines for coming up with plans to manage watersheds and oil and gas activities in parts of the First Nations’ claim area, which covers four per cent of the province.

The deal comes after a 2021 B.C. Supreme Court decision found the provincial government breached obligations under Treaty 8, signed by the Blueberry River First Nations in 1900, because it allowed development such as forestry and natural gas extraction without the community’s approval.

The court heard more than 84 per cent of Blueberry River First Nations’ territory is within 500 metres of an industrial disturbance.

Under the new agreement, the two sides will spend the next three years creating four Watershed Management Basin plans for all natural resource sector activities in areas considered the most important to the nation.

The plans will set out old-growth forest levels, reserves, and “promote sustainable economies and resilient communities,” the government says.

In the next 18 months, they’ll also come up with three plans for oil and gas development in the area.

In the meantime, the two sides have agreed to a timber harvesting schedule outside core areas, and are limiting new land disturbances caused by oil and gas development to 750 hectares annually.

“This agreement provides a clear pathway to get the hard work started on healing and restoring the land, and start on the joint planning with strong criteria to protect ecosystems, wildlife habitat and old forests,” Chief Judy Desjarlais of the Blueberry River First Nations said in a statement.

“With the knowledge and guidance of our elders, this new agreement will ensure there will be healthy land and resources for current and future generations to carry on our people’s way of life.”

Under the agreement, a Blueberry River-B.C. restoration fund is being established with joint oversight from both Blueberry River First Nations and the provincial government.

The province has agreed to provide $200 million to the fund by June 2025, though some of that money could come from industry or Ottawa.

“This historic agreement between British Columbia and Blueberry River First Nations not only brings more predictability for the region and local economy but it helps ensure that we are operating on the land in partnership to ensure sustainability for future generations,” Premier David Eby said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Treaty 8 was signed in 1899. In fact, it was signed by the Blueberry River First Nations 1900.