Four First Nations in B.C. have signed revenue-sharing and consensus agreements with the province that both parties say will pave the way for collaborative land stewardship and resource planning.
The Fort Nelson, Saulteau, Halfway River and Doig River First Nations are following the lead of the Blueberry River First Nations, which announced a similar agreement on Wednesday. All are Treaty 8 signatories located in the northeastern region of the province.
The agreements follow a successful lawsuit brought by Blueberry River First Nations. In 2021, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke ruled that the constant approval of new resource development projects in Treaty 8 territory infringed on the nations' constitutionally protected rights to appropriate land to hunt, fish, trap and carry out a traditional way of life.
The court heard that more than 84 per cent of the Blueberry River territory is within 500 metres of an industrial disturbance.
Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said the agreements announced today will begin to address the cumulative impacts of industrial development in the region.
"Honouring Treaty 8 is a critical part of B.C.'s work in advancing reconciliation," said Rankin. "The initiatives set out in the consensus document are intended to protect Treaty 8 rights, the environment and ecosystems."
Representatives of the First Nations expressed gratitude to to Blueberry River for taking the Treaty 8 fight to court.
"Without them defending our rights in court we wouldn't be here today," said Chief Sharleen Gale of Fort Nelson First Nation. "I really believe this agreement represents a new beginning."
"Since 1973, $12.6 billion in royalties have left our territories to B.C.," she said. "Going forward, we can really work on restoring our relationship and doing things right."
"It's the beginning of a new way of doing things in northeast B.C.," said Doig River First Nation Chief Trevor Makadahay. "Hopefully this is a trend for the rest of Canada."
University of Victoria law professor Chris Tollefson said the agreements indicate an improvement in Crown and First Nations relations.
"What we've seen here, at least in recent times, is a genuine interest in sitting down and negotiating and moving toward a new model which is less of a top-down approach and more of a partnership approach," said Tollefson, speaking to CBC's Daybreak North.
Treaty 8 was first signed in 1899. Tollefson said losing in B.C. Supreme Court marked a turning point for the province.
"Government fought them in court in those early days," he said. "It was a last resort that [Blueberry River] turned to litigation and you know, it was a tough fight."
According to Josie Osborne, minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation, the agreements represent a reset in land, water and resource stewardship in the province.
"They honour a treaty signed more than 120 years ago, a span of time over which the government took the wrong path," she said.
"We acknowledge that we can't continue to use the same tools and approaches that have failed us and failed Treaty 8 in the past and we must work together to restore and care for the land."