Nadleh Whut'en and Stellat'en hereditary leaders proclaim B.C.'s first aboriginal water laws
GORDON HOEKSTRA, VANCOUVER SUN 03.30.2016
The hereditary leaders of two northern B.C. First Nations proclaimed the first traditional aboriginal water laws in the province, which could have implications for industrial development including mining and LNG pipeline projects.
The Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en First Nation traditional leaders declared on Wednesday no development would take place on their traditional territories in the Northern Interior unless the water laws were followed.
“We are here to make it safer for everybody. We are here to make it safer for the animals, ourselves and the plants,” said Nadleh Whut’en chief Martin Louie. “You can do it our way, or not do business at all.”
The First Nation leaders said their power to enact the water laws were backed by a historic 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that granted a Tsilhqot’in Nation title to 1,740 square kilometres of traditional territory in the Interior, and pushed consultation obligations for government to a higher threshold. They also cited a landmark B.C. Court of Appeal ruling involving the Stellat’en and nearby Saik’uz First Nation, which allows First Nations to launch lawsuits to protect their territory from companies, even before proving aboriginal title.
The First Nation leaders said they have notified the province and industry about their water policy.
The B.C. Ministry of Environment said it had not received the declaration and would not comment on its specifics.
However, ministry spokesman David Karn said in an email that the province is
committed to meeting its duty to consult during the implementation of the recently passed Water Sustainability Act and regulations.
The First Nations’ water management policy
aims to protect surface waters so they will remain “substantially unaltered in terms of water quality and flow.” Companies would be expected to complete a wide-ranging 11-step consultation process with Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en environmental staff that includes a systematic evaluation of environmental issues and concerns with each surface water system, including collecting data on historical water quality and cultural use.
Louie said frustration over the lack of protection that B.C. and Canadian laws provided for water in their territories drove them to put their traditional laws on paper, something they would not normally do with their oral laws.
He cited concerns, for example, the Endako molybdenum mine had caused harm to water and fish, and that the First Nations had been unable to get the company, the province or Canadian officials to act on their concerns. Thompson Creek Metals, which owns the mine that is shuttered because of low prices, was not immediately available for comment.
In 2014, The Vancouver Sun reported the Ministry of Environment was re-evaluating the amount of waste water the Endako mine was allowed to discharge because a review had found effluent was affecting the aquatic environment.
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip said he expected other aboriginal groups in the province to follow suit, enacting their own traditional laws as a result of the Tsilhqot’in court decision.
He said he also saw this as a transition where the leaders of the First Nation hereditary systems would take more control of their traditional territories, saying that band council’s power only extended to reserve lands and areas like housing.
Phillip and First Nation Summit leader Ed John both signed the water policy declaration.