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Two hydroelectric dams operate within Blueberry River First Nation territory, and a third – the 1,100-megawatt Site C dam on the Peace River – is under construction.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government will no longer be permitted to authorize industrial development on traditional Blueberry River First Nations territory without the community’s approval, the British Columbia Supreme Court has ruled.

The court found that the provincial government breached Treaty 8 – which includes BRFN – by allowing forestry, road-building and natural gas extraction to take place on the protected territory for decades.

Treaty 8, signed in 1899, gave the government the right to approve development in the expansive territory, but guaranteed signatories access to traditional ways of life such as hunting, fishing and trapping. BRFN, in northeastern B.C., argued in court that this right had been eroded because of excessive industrialization.

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Two hydroelectric dams operate within BRFN territory, and a third – the 1,100-megawatt Site C dam on the Peace River – is under construction. Local communities have pushed back against Site C in recent years, arguing that dams flood traditional lands, and disrupt the habitat of local wildlife such as caribou, grizzly bears and moose.

Blueberry River First Nation back in court to fight B.C. over forestry, oil and gas impact

In 2019, the BRFN’s chief and council issued a statement that said nearly three-quarters of the BRFN’s population lived within 250 metres of industrial infrastructure, and that people were afraid to drink from nearby water sources.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke ruled on Wednesday the province has failed to consider the effects of the development on the First Nation’s treaty rights.

“Blueberry’s knowledge and its ability to successfully hunt, trap, fish and gather depends on the health and relative stability of the environment. If forests are cut, or critical habitat destroyed, it’s not as simple as finding another place to hunt,” she said.

In a statement after Wednesday’s ruling, BRFN said the decision was a “milestone” in preserving their ancestral land and way of life.

“For years, members young and old of our First Nation have witnessed the destruction of our territory by provincial policies that support aggressive industrial development at the expense of our way of life,” the First Nation said. “We celebrate the framework and path forward for our Nation and the territory that is so central to our past and future.”

Prior to the ruling, BRFN said its battle to be taken seriously by the provincial government had dragged on for more than a decade. During that time, it said the province had continued to prioritize development without a way to account for the effects on the people, animals and environment.

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The BRFN traditional territory covers nearly 40,000 square kilometres, according to a 2016 Atlas of Cumulative Landscape Disturbance, which also shows the extent of industrial intrusions in the region. The area overlaps with the Montney Formation, a major natural gas deposit in the northeast part of the province.

As of the report’s publication, 69 per cent of the First Nation’s traditional territory was covered in some type of active oil tenure – agreements with the province that give private developers rights to petroleum and natural gas resources. Also within the area are 110,300 kilometres of roads, transmission lines, seismic lines and pipelines, as well as 9,435 oil and gas facilities.

Treaty 8 itself covers 840,000 square kilometres – an area larger than France – including northern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and southern Northwest Territories. There were 23,200 Indigenous people living within the historical Treaty 8 area in 2016, according to the most recent Statistics Canada census.

The B.C. court order will be suspended for six months to allow the province and BRFN to negotiate changes to local regulations.

The court ruling is expected to be watched by other First Nations in northern B.C. that are also seeking to halt industrial development in their territories, and by oil and gas companies hoping to further develop the region.

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