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Some of the hundreds of people who showed for a pole raising work together to push the first totem pole in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years on Haida Gwaii, B.C., August 15, 2013. A Joint Review Panel considering BC Hydro’s Site C dam proposal is being urged to note the impact the project will have on traditional First Nations’ way of life.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The poignant words of a 12-year-old native girl and the promises made in a 115-year-old treaty have been put before the Joint Review Panel examining BC Hydro's proposal to build a dam at Site C on the Peace River.

In a session dealing with aboriginal and treaty rights, Stewart Cameron, former chief of the Saulteau First Nations, told the panel that "treaty" is not just a word to the members of his band, who became signatories to Treaty 8 in 1899. The treaty covers an area of 840,000 square kilometres in northwestern Canada, including the Peace River region of northeast B.C.

"To us, it's our way of life. It's who we are. It's a meaning," said Mr. Cameron, who joined with other native representatives late last week in urging the panel to consider the negative impact the dam would have on their traditional way of life.

In its environmental impact statement, BC Hydro maintains that while the dam would flood a large area of the Peace River valley, new fishing opportunities could be created and hunting would remain available elsewhere in the region.

"The results of BC Hydro's studies indicate that wildlife species harvested by First Nations in the LAA [local assessment area] would continue to be available," Trevor Proverbs, director of the First Nations engagement for BC Hydro told the panel. "A productive fish habitat will develop in the reservoir and changes to access during construction would be temporary. Based on these conclusions, BC Hydro concluded that the asserted or established rights of the members of each of the 11 aboriginal groups identified would be affected but they would continue to be able to exercise their asserted or established rights to hunt, trap and fish."

Mr. Cameron, however, said First Nations have already had their hunting and fishing rights eroded by development in the region, and he reminded the panel that when Treaty 8 was signed, it was supposed to ensure native people could continue their traditional practices.

He said Canadians and government might have their own interpretations of what the treaty means, but for him the best definition came when his daughter, Shalayne, who is now 22, explained it a decade earlier to her Grade 7 classmates.

"The treaty I am talking about is an agreement that is based on peace, sharing and co-existence," Mr. Cameron said, reading his daughter's school presentation. "Basically, the treaty promised our people that we could continue our way of life as we wanted to. It was as if we had never entered the treaty before, meaning we can hunt, fish and trap for as long as the sun keeps shining, the river flows and the grass keeps growing. All in all, this meant forever."

Mr. Cameron quoted his daughter as saying the treaty was made to avoid war between First Nations and "the Queen's people," and that in signing it the bands showed "we were willing to share some of the land base and I think that is something we can all be thankful for today."

Using his own words, Mr. Cameron reminded the panel that two sides signed the treaty and that both are bound by it today.

"It wasn't a one-sided treaty where people could just come in onto our land base, take our resources and use them up as they so wish," he said.

Mr. Cameron said BC Hydro has already built two dams on the Peace, and they have flooded traditional hunting and fishing areas.

"If it continues at the pace it's going, there will be nothing left for any of us," he said. "So we have to be very careful how we approve projects and how we move forward on this land base."

Craig Candler, a consultant to Treaty 8 Tribal Association, said land use studies have identified 368 sites within the inundation zone that are used by native people for hunting, fishing and collecting medicinal plants.

Dr. Candler disputed BC Hydro's conclusion that First Nations will be able to hunt and fish elsewhere and urged the panel to use a precautionary approach.

The Joint Review Panel, which will conclude its hearings this week, is meeting in Fort St. John.