The Blueberry River First Nations are arguing in court that based on promises made by the Crown in 1899, resource development should be halted in a huge swath of northeast British Columbia, an area that encompases some of the most intense oil and gas, pipeline and logging activity in the province.
In an injunction application made Monday in the Supreme Court of B.C. the BRFN seek to protect hunting, trapping and fishing rights which they say were guaranteed by Treaty 8 more than 100 years ago. They claim those rights are now being destroyed by the cumulative impact of developments.
BRFN lawyer Maegen Giltrow told court that many areas within the traditional territory of the bands are "perceived as being spoiled or unsafe" because of industrial activity.
She said as roads, gas wells, pipelines and other developments take place, game animals become increasingly scarce and traplines become less productive, forcing people to travel increasingly farther from their homes to harvest from the land.
Ms. Giltrow said sites that have lost game are described as having "gone dark" by BRFN members and that darkness has been spreading rapidly across the landscape near Fort St. John where they live.
Ms. Giltrow told court that the BRFN are located "in the epicentre of oil and gas development" in British Columbia and although they have been raising their concerns with the province for years, the pace of development has not slowed.
The injunction seeks to restrain the B.C. government from permitting oil and gas activities, logging and aggregate extraction or quarrying activities in "critical areas" that span 10,000 km2. The traditional territory of the BRFN covers about 38,000 km2 which overlaps the Montney gas field, the richest in British Columbia with an estimated 271 trillion cubic feet of marketable natural gas.
In the area, there are currently about 16,000 oil and gas wells, 28,000 kms of pipelines, 5,000 km2 of logging cut blocks and 45,000 kms of roads. Since 2012, the province has authorized in the area the construction of more than 2,600 new oil and gas wells and the building of 1,500 kms of pipelines.
If the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project goes ahead (it was approved by the federal government in September) it has been estimated more than 6,000 new gas wells will be drilled in the Montney region.
Ms. Giltrow told court that already about 84 per cent of the BRFN traditional lands are within 500 metres of some kind of development.
She said "the important role of the promises made" under Treaty 8, which was drafted in 1899 and formally signed by the BRFN a year later, would be a key part of the legal argument.
Under Treaty 8, the BRFN and other First Nations who live in 84,000 km2 of land in what is now northeast B.C., northern Alberta, northwest Saskatchewan and southern Northwest Territories surrendered their traditional territory to the Crown. In exchange the First Nations were promised reserves and other benefits, including the rights to hunt, trap and fish throughout the area except on "such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes."
Ms. Giltrow said in addition to the treaty rights, the First Nations also received "solemn promises" from the Indian agent at the time that hunting, fishing and trapping activities would not be curtailed even if some land was "taken up" for various purposes.
Ms. Giltrow told the court that affidavits filed by BRFN members will attest to how the loss of game and other wildlife is changing their way of life.
She quoted elder Lana Wolf as stating that her role of teaching traditional ways to a younger generation has been compromised by the spread of development.
"Our territory is getting more and more developed … disrupted or destroyed," stated Ms. Wolf's affidavit. "I fear that soon there will be nowhere left."
BRFN Chief Marvin Yahey said in an affidavit that game "used to be outside my back door," but now he and others in his community have to travel to the fringes of their traditional lands to find hunting areas.
The provincial government response to the claim is expected later in the week. The trial is set for five days.