During the BC Environmental Assessment Process many decisions are taken and parties consulted, however, when it comes to take a decision on native land, First Nations have little say or authority during the process and over the result of it. This is for the Minister only, to allow the interest of the ‘larger public’ to rise in the matter. Although First Nations are consulted as a third party, it is the Environmental Assessment Office ( EAO) that writes and develops the texts, and the Minister that has complete authority over implementations and procedures.
EAO’s legislation relation with the First Nations
The Minister might not always ask for First Nation’s input on the assessment project, and is not required to do so through legislation. However, if the First Nation communities are really concerned and want to have authority or a say in this assessment, they could refer to the common-law Haida principles that will consider their interest as public interest. Usually, conflict of interest will be about economical and development reasons, thus providing much difficulties for First Nations to manage judicial reviews. In addition, EAO’s major interest goal is ‘environmental’ and does not see why First Nations interest should be taken, only as a third party for consultation, in that matter. Nevertheless, many staff from the EAO have shown interest in the participation of the First Nations to provide a traditional knowledge input to the assessment that would be useful for the general population as well.
From the EAO perspectives their goal is environmental and they do not require native input as they understand that environmental issues are global and will benefit everyone. The EAO uses mainly scientific and linear research based methods rather than cultural knowledge, acknowledging that it would still be useful to have a cooperation between both. Therefore, the research EAO teams does not know how to process cultural knowledge and measure this knowledge on a biophysical or socio-economical scale.Moreover, First Nations knowledge includes local and site specific knowledge of the land that is transmitted from one generation to another orally and related to a need of community survival. This knowledge can be used to asses the impact on a community and surrounding area that has been familiar to the First Nations communities for generations. In addition, the EAO can include a ‘native perspective’ to the assessment but as they do not know how to ‘read’ and understand the knowledge on a scientific level, it is not regarded as largely significant.
Nevertheless, it is a common-law that the government and therefore the EAO consults the First Nations with their assessment project and the EAO does not have any authority to speak on behalf of the province.
The EAO gets its funding from tax revenues and only has a substantial provincial budget, that once the project is finished and approved is returned to the economic development. Many advocates of the EAO have significant resources to help the process and recoup their investment once the project approved. Therefore, if the First Nations want to take part in the assessment project they are also expected to fund themselves, to get a consultant and produce their own studies. Thus, they need to do a volunteer base group which would not be as experienced and they have to go through a large volume of referrals that can vary in size and scientific environmental knowledge. Agreements for the project are bound by the proponents and the EAO, not First Nations specifically, that is why if First Nations want to be part and involved in the EAO assessment they are expected to be proponents.
The EAO’s intention is to have a the creation of a ‘work group’ that is formed by stakeholders and that share similar interests and views in the matter, however, this does not include or consider aboriginal rights and title of the land and the preservation of their cultural heritage. Moreover, this group is composed of representatives of provincial, federal and local government, they are responsible to review a proponent EA application review that has to include a biophysical impact. It is all about ‘technical’ discussions not ‘political’, although the EAO enjoys a discretion of movement that can allow for political interest.
The focus of the EAO is to determine the potential impacts of a project and how those impacts can be dealt with or attenuated and if the project should be kept ongoing. Interestingly, the BC EAO has never rejected a project since 1995, which is around 65 projects approval. There have been questions about if the EA work is relevant, as at times some project’s impact on the environment were too big to be mitigated and were still accepted. Thus, many projects accepted are delayed or inactive as further information needs to be handed in but they are not canceled which creates uncertainty for the First Nations communities that need to review the process.
The other limitation in relation to the First Nations is the time needed to get all the paperwork and assessments done (180 days) in which they have to complete an assessment report on the application, then refer the application and assessment report to the appropriate Cabinet Minister. For this reason, the 180 days process is overwhelming for the First Nations communities as they already have to deal with referral letters and other forms of ‘preliminary’ consultation from governments and third parties concerning land management and resource projects. Additionally the lack technical capacity does not help the process and delays the engagement of the project. First Nations have to consult legal third parties that will provide technical and legal advice, as well as review decisions with their members before going on further, requiring more than 180 days to finish and hand in the papers.
Finally, what the First Nations really need is to be more involved with the environmental assessment process which should be led by a non-biased/political agency that works along side with the First Nations. This representative would therefore, considers the impacts of the project on First Nations cultural and environmental heritage, respecting their rights and title to the land.
First Nations in:
- Evergreen Stewardship Plan for Lillooet Sub Region
- Evergreen Stewardship Plan for South Chilcotin Sub Region