When he was a boy, Marvin Yahey lived mostly off the land, hunting and trapping year-round with his family in the game-rich forests in northeastern British Columbia.
But an explosion of resource development over the past three decades has so fractured the landscape that that kind of life isn't possible any more, he says, except in a few small areas that remain untouched.
Now, as chief with the Blueberry River First Nations, he is going to court in an attempt to stop the continued spread of oil and gas projects, mining, forestry and hydro development in the area around Fort St. John.
The six bands that live in the area announced Wednesday they are suing the provincial government in the Supreme Court of B.C. for allegedly breaching Treaty 8, a document enacted in 1900 that promised natives that in exchange for opening their lands to settlement, they could continue their traditional way of life.
The Blueberry bands are seeking an interim injunction restraining the government from permitting any further development. If successful, the action could tie up resource projects worth billions of dollars, including BC Hydro's planned Site C dam on the Peace River and development in the Montney gas field, the richest in B.C. with an estimated 271 trillion cubic feet of marketable natural gas.
Although specific resource projects have often been challenged by First Nations in the past, the Blueberry suit is believed to be the first based on the cumulative impact of numerous developments.
In addition to two existing hydro dams in the region, there are roughly more than 16,000 oil and gas wells, 28,000 kilometres of pipelines, 4,000 square km of coal tenures, 5,000 square km of logging cutblocks and 45,000 km of road.
Chief Yahey said his people have been talking for years about the need for a court case that addressed the issue of cumulative impact on their culture.
"From the time I was a young fella we lived a very traditional way of life. I was on the trap line with my father, my brothers," he said. "We were out there year round, living off the land … [and] there was very little industrial activity. It really accelerated here in the last 25-30 years and that started to change our way of life … As time went on it got to the point that the animals we live on [vanished]. There's no moose out there now."
Chief Yahey said the Blueberry bands decided to go to court after failing to make any headway in talks with the provincial government about cumulative impacts.
"We have always asked about the cumulative impacts and the province would not deal with it," he said. "They didn't want to talk about it; it was always swept away."
However, B.C.'s Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad said his government has been speaking with the Blueberry bands and is hoping to continue that dialogue.
"It's unfortunate Blueberry River has chosen the path of litigation," he said in an e-mail. "Our government is committed to consulting with Blueberry River First Nations and all Treaty 8 First Nations on decisions that may affect hunting, fishing and trapping treaty rights within their respective traditional territories."
Mr. Rustad said the provincial government recognizes the importance of assessing and managing the overall effects of resource development in northeast B.C. and has established a cumulative-effects program to deal with those issues.
"I understand Blueberry River First Nations' concerns regarding natural resource development within their traditional territory and we remain committed to reaching a respectful, long-term government-to-government relationship," he wrote. "Our negotiators have been meeting with Blueberry River First Nations to reach an agreement that ensures they are able have both economic opportunities and a role in environmental stewardship within their traditional territory."
Mr. Rustad said he could not comment on the specifics of the claim.
The government has 30 days to file a response with the court.
Markus Ermisch, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, declined to comment as the matter is before the courts.