On Dec. 22, 1854, the Snuneymuxw people signed a treaty that provided them with 668 blankets. In exchange, British settlers got to mine the rich coal seam in their territory.
The treaty – one of just a handful ever signed in British Columbia – was made only because the governor of the fledgling colony of Vancouver Island really wanted to get his hands on that fuel.
Now coal is a hot commodity again and B.C. Premier Christy Clark is seeking to cajole another first nation to agree to its extraction.
This week, Ms. Clark announced during her China trade mission that she has secured $860-million in financing to build a coal mine in northeast B.C. which will eventually create 4,800 jobs.
What she didn’t mention is the hitch: The proposed Gething coal mine would be built in the West Moberly First Nation’s territory. The province knows full well that the native band – coincidentally, another one of the small number with a treaty in B.C. – opposes the plan.
The Premier glossed over the obstacle this week, saying it’s just a question of settling on a price.
“A big part of the benefit will accrue to first nations,” she explained to reporters in a conference call from Beijing. “It’s just a question of negotiating how much.”
Ms. Clark is in China to assure investors that B.C. is a safe, stable place to do business. Uncertainty over resource development is the last thing she wants to talk about. Construction will begin at the Gething mine in two years, she asserted, once the environmental assessment, permits and first nations and community consultation are complete.
But consultation with the West Moberly is going nowhere, said Chief Roland Willson.
“No ifs, ands or buts,” he said in an interview this week. “The mine will have to find another place to go.”
The West Moberly are not anti-development. There are five active coal mines in their territory. Including the Gething proposal, there are 28 applications for development on their lands – including mines, pipelines and power projects. Some they’ll support, others they will not.
But the Premier is eyeing a coal seam right next to the band’s summer camp – one of the few places left where the West Moberly people can continue traditional hunting, fishing and trapping unhindered by truckloads of coal rumbling past. “We have to have that [protected area]to carry on our culture,” Mr. Willson said. “The impacts of this mine to our way of life cannot be mitigated, so our only option is to say no.”
The province reassures the business community that it has a duty to consult with first nations, but that those communities have no veto over development decisions. However, the province is no longer bartering for blankets – B.C.’s first nations have formed their own mining council to assist their people in negotiating directly with businesses to ensure resources don’t leave their territories without them gaining a share of the benefits.
In some cases, partnership won’t be enough. Across the province, first nations are outright opposed to some developments – such as the New Prosperity mine and the Jumbo Glacier resort. This is where the Premier’s ambitions are heading for conflict.
Nearly 160 years after his ancestors marked an X on an agreement to give the Crown access to their coal, the current chief of the Snuneymuxw, Douglas White, is still fighting with the provincial government to recognize his people’s aboriginal rights and title.
James Douglas, the first governor of the colony, pursued treaties to get resources out of the ground without conflict. But he abandoned that path when the treaty process proved to be costly. Ms. Clark, who inherited a province that is still mostly subject to unsettled claims of aboriginal rights and title, wants to focus on job creation ahead of treaties.
Mr. White is dubious about the Premier’s plan, warning that pushing economic development without first nations’ approval won’t help Ms. Clark realize her jobs agenda.
“This is not relationship-building, it’s about meeting minimal legal standards,” he said. “We are not creating the level of certainty for the province’s potential to be realized.”
Ms. Clark can certainly find many projects in B.C. where first nations are willing to step up and take a partnership role. Is she willing to press ahead with those projects where the answer is no?