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Council of Canadians supports First Nation water protection laws

The Council of Canadians supports the water protection laws recently adopted by the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and the Stellat’en First Nation.

The Nadleh Whut’en First Nation website says, “The Nadleh Whut’en First Nation territory is located in north central British Columbia.  It encompasses approximately 500,000 hectares (5,000 sq. kms).” And the Stellat’en First Nation website says, “The community of Stellako is located 160 kilometers west of Prince George, B.C. Stellat’en (people of Stella) has existed since time immemorial. The fertile land between Fraser Lake and Vanderhoof is the basin of a glacial Lake. Stellaquo is located at the confluence between two rivers: the Stellaquo and Endako.”

The Vancouver Sun reports, “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 [March 30] no development would take place on their traditional territories in the Northern Interior unless the water laws were followed. …The First Nations’ water management policy aims to protect surface waters so they will remain ‘substantially unaltered in terms of water quality and flow’.”

The article adds, “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.”

Vancouver-based Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui recently wrote in her report Water Rush: Why B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act fails to protect water that, “Today, most of B.C. is on unceded Indigenous territory. …In a submission to the B.C. government about the Water Sustainability Act (WSA), the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) wrote, ‘As an incidence of our Aboriginal Title to our territories, Indigenous Peoples have jurisdiction over the waters in our territories.’ …Yet in section 5 of the WSA, the province asserts Crown ownership of water. …Recognition of Indigenous title is missing entirely from the new WSA. Further changes to the act must include this important step in order to address colonialism and colonization.”

The Vancouver Sun notes, “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.” Unfortunately, a commitment to consultation is not the same as recognition of jurisdiction.

The water protection laws adopted by the Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en First Nations follow other key water declarations.

In February 2013, the Secwepemc issued a Sacred Water Declaration. As noted on the Secwepemc Nation website, “The Shuswap or Secwepemc people occupy a vast territory of the interior of British Columbia.” Their Declaration states, “As Secwepemc, we are collectively responsible to take care of our land and water, to uphold all of our responsibilities and follow our Natural Laws, as was passed down to us from Tqelt Kukpi7 and our ancestors. Therefore, we will not, under any condition, compromise the health of our water and our future generations. …We unanimously agree that all mining is detrimental to the health of our Nations’ water.”

In July 2011, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation adopted their Watershed Declaration. As noted on the KI website, this First Nation is “Located approximately 377 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada or 270 miles north of Sioux Lookout, Ontario.” Their declaration protects about 40 square kilometres of water from any mineral exploration and exploitation. For land outside of the watershed area, the community has put in place a new consultation protocol, which establishes a process for companies and governments to approach KI to indicate their plans and request consent.

And since November 2010 more than 130 First Nations have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration. The Yinka Dene Alliance states, “The Save the Fraser Declaration is an Indigenous law ban on tar sands pipelines through First Nations traditional territories in the Fraser River watershed – including the rivers flowing into the Fraser River like the Stuart, the Endako and the Salmon Rivers.  It also bans tar sands oil tankers in the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon on the north and south coasts of British Columbia. …The Save the Fraser Declaration is an exercise of Indigenous law, Title, and Rights, and has status under First Nations law, Canadian law, and International law.”

In December 2013, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow signed a Solidarity Accord for the Save the Fraser Declaration. She stated, “We recognize and respect First Nations’ decisions to ban tar sands pipelines and tankers from their territories and we offer our support and solidarity in upholding the Save the Fraser Declaration.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip commented this week that he expects other First Nations to adopt water protection laws.