“Free, prior and informed consent.”
That’s the key phrase in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C. Premier John Horgan has vowed to implement in a province that has long struggled with unresolved aboriginal title and a lack of treaties over much of its area.
That goal came closer as Horgan unveiled an agreement with three Indigenous communities to shut down up to 17 net-pen salmon farms in their traditional territory off B.C.’s coast.
Horgan and other politicians frequently say the UN declaration is not a veto over development, but the province’s retreat from the Broughton Archipelago amounts to much the same thing. Ten of the long-standing provincial tenures between Kingcome and Knight inlets off the north end of Vancouver Island are gone by 2023, and the other seven can continue only if the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis, ‘Namgis and Mamalilikulla First Nations consent.
The salmon farming companies, Marine Harvest and Cermaq, give up their sites and get little in return. They are allowed to apply to the federal government for new aquaculture licences elsewhere on the B.C. coast, and company representatives say they intend to protect the jobs of 600 employees affected by the shutdowns.
Scientific study of salmon farms and their effects on migrating wild salmon is to continue, and Indigenous communities are to establish monitoring and inspection of remaining sites in the region. But as all sides were praising a new spirit of cooperation, a ‘Namgis councillor said the deal doesn’t change the community’s long-standing demand that all ocean-based salmon farms must be moved out of their territory.
Provincial officials note that debate continues among marine scientists about the impact of parasites and viruses from salmon farms on wild salmon, which are subject to many stresses at sea and in streams.
A December report by Ottawa’s independent panel on aquaculture science offered no conclusions, recommending further research.
Opposition MLAs argue that the province has thousands of land-based Crown tenures that could be jeopardized by B.C. conceding to Indigenous claims as they have with shoreline tenures in the Broughton. B.C. is unique in Canada with more than 200 recognized Indigenous communities, many with overlapping territorial claims and most without treaties ceding land to the Crown.
The salmon farm settlement is “critical to Canada’s development,” Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis Chief Bob Chamberlin said at a ceremony at the B.C. legislature Dec. 14. Chamberlin is vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, a militant group joining protests against pipelines and other development.
Technically, the B.C. agreement is only a set of recommendations to the federal government. Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was on hand to receive the report, and his remarks were cautious. He noted that his department provided “scientific input” but was not involved in the decision to shut down or move salmon farms from disputed areas.
Ottawa is “developing a risk management framework that will focus on implementing the precautionary approach in consultation with provinces, territories, indigenous peoples, industry and other stakeholders,” Wilkinson said.
Former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell made his own effort to solve the puzzle of Indigenous rights, with a province-wide aboriginal title proposal based on historic territories. The “Recognition and Reconciliation Act” was withdrawn after Indigenous leaders, notably those in the UBCIC, rejected it as a backroom deal that was pushed through just before the 2009 B.C. election.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org