Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


Court action in tribal council’s arsenal

September 20, 2005

Heiltsuk First Nation will fight any provincial decision to ignore offshore ban

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council promised Monday to resort to court action if the B.C. government ignores an aboriginal land-use plan for the central coast that includes a ban on fish farming and offshore oil and gas exploration.

“We’d have no choice but to take court action,” Kelly Brown, Heiltsuk land-use plan coordinator, told a Vancouver news conference. “We’re prepared to do that.”

Under a Supreme Court of Canada ruling earlier this year, the B.C. government is legally required to consult and attempt to accommodate aboriginal concerns prior to approving developments in traditional territories.

The Heiltsuk First Nation, which numbers 2,200 status members, based on the island community of Bella Bella, says it wants 49 per cent of its traditional territory to be protected as natural and cultural areas. It claims its territories extend to 16,770 square kilometres of land and 19,000 square kilometres of surrounding ocean.

“Anybody interested in operating in the central coast would have to be aware of the Heiltsuk land-use plan,” said Harvey Humchitt, a hereditary chief dressed in a traditional button blanket and weasel-pelt headdress.

Environmentalists refer to B.C.‘s central and north coast as the Great Bear Rainforest.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund, are running a full-page ad in the New York Times today urging the B.C. government to immediately adopt an ecofriendly land-use plan for the coast, one already supported by loggers, corporations, environmentalists, and local communities.

Readers are urged to contact Premier Gordon Campbell directly to ensure the survival of the “rare white Spirit Bears, wild salmon, and 1,000-year-old cedar of the Great Bear Rainforest.”

Bill Bourgeois, project manager for the Coastal Forest Conservation Initiative, representing the major logging companies, said industry supports sustainable, ecosystem-based timber harvesting, protection of 22 per cent of the central and north coast, and an infusion of funds from government and private donors to create economic development for natives.

He said he, too, is anxious for the province to make a decision on a coastal land-use plan, but said if it takes a bit longer to get a “stable” agreement with first nations, then so be it.

The Heiltsuk land-use plan would ban salmon farming, oil and gas exploration, and destructive logging practices.

“We’re setting a very high standard,” Brown said.

The plan does not specifically call for an end to clear-cut logging, but the Heiltsuk are calling for the protection of old-growth cedar, which they say cannot continue to be harvested at the current rate. Logging must leave behind fully functioning eco-systems and prosperous human communities.

The Heiltsuk position on land development is not completely rigid. Brown said his people might be okay with salmon farming that utilizes enclosed pens rather than the current system of water-based pens that poses a threat to wild salmon.

Brown was more cautious on the prospect for future approval of offshore oil and gas exploration, saying his people are so reliant on seafood that an oil spill would amount to the destruction of their culture.

John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, said proponents of lifting the moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration at least now know what they’re up against. He added he wonders whether the land-use plan is in fact the first step in negotiations, and whether native opposition is a way of ensuring they get their share of any resource development.

The Heiltsuk would like to cash in on tourism on the central coast, and are even open to the potential for mining and dams to create hydroelectricity to sell. “We have a lot of water,” Brown said. “Nothing is out of the question.”

A final decision on land use in the region is expected to be made by cabinet later this year.