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$65 million announced for Blueberry River land restoration, cultural projects

In June, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the province breached its treaty obligations to Blueberry River due to the cumulative impacts of industrial development in the region. 
"It's the first step and it's an important step," said Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin.

The provincial government announced $65 million in funding Thursday to support land and cultural restoration in northeast B.C., following the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the province breached its treaty obligations to the Blueberry River First Nation.

The province also said that a majority of forestry and oil and gas projects permitted and authorized before the court’s decision in June will still proceed. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin and Blueberry River Chief Marvin Yahey made the joint announcement as part of an initial agreement following the court’s ruling.

“It’s the first step and it's an important step," Rankin said. “It’s something that will support what we call healing the land. It helps provide stability and certainty for permit holders in Blueberry territory and in the immediate term provides that certain that industry has spoken to me about.”

As part of the agreement, the province says it will establish a $35-million fund for Blueberry to undertake activities including:

  • land, road and seismic restoration;

  • river, stream, and wetland restoration;

  • habitat connectivity;

  • native seed and nursery projects; and

  • training for restoration activities.

Another $30 million will be allocated to support Blueberry River for other activities including:

  • work on cultural areas, traplines, cabins and trails;

  • educational activities and materials, including teaching traditional skills and language;

  • expanding Blueberry River resources and capacity for land management; and

  • restoring the health of wildlife through wildlife management, habitat enhancement including prescribed burning, and research.

Chief Yahey said he was pleased to see the province take the Supreme Court ruling seriously, which he said sets a new path for Blueberry's future. 

“Today’s initial arrangement provides stability. It allows us to get to work straight away,” Yahey said. "This includes our members and everyone living and working on our territory.”

Rankin said 195 forestry and oil and gas projects will still be able to move forward under the agreement, or 90% of the permits that were already authorized before the court's decision, he said. Twenty authorizations in areas of high cultural importance have been deferred, Rankin said.

“Our next step is to develop an interim approach for decision making for new applications that will come forward, one that can be in place before the end of this year, and that meets our commitment to recognize and respect Blueberry Rivers’ treaty rights,” Rankin said.

“That will set the stage to work together collaboratively with other Treaty 8 nations, with industry, with local governments on long term solutions," he said.

In June, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the province breached its treaty obligations to Blueberry River due to the cumulative impacts of industrial development in the region. 

Justice Emily M. Burke said the province cannot authorize further development activities that breach its treaty obligations and promises, or otherwise unjustifiably infringe on Blueberry’s exercise of treaty rights. Burke gave the province and Blueberry River six months to negotiate changes.

The trial was lengthy and complex, taking place over more than 160 days in 2019 and 2020 after Blueberry first brought the claim to court in 2015, and which was later postponed in 2018 and restarted in 2019 as the two parties tried to negotiate an agreement.

The province said it would not appeal Burke's decision, the first of its kind in Canada. It also said Thursday that it is reimbursing Blueberry's legal costs.

"I can't tell you how important this court decision is for our community, our people," Yahey said. 

"We felt fear, anger, helplessness, and so much frustration as we tried for years to get government to listen, to stop, but they wouldn't," he said. "The court's decision sets a new path for the future, for our children, and our children's future for generations."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at [email protected]