By Chris Sankey
The First Nations on the coast of B.C. have relied on the sea for food, trade and income for millennia – as we say, ‘when the tide goes out, the table is set’.
When commercial fishing began in the region in the 19th century, it was not surprising that First Nations people became heavily involved in the industry because they understood the sea, the boats and the fish. It was a good relationship that provided income and helped maintain traditional livelihoods.
Unfortunately, the commercial fishing industry has declined in the past few decades. Fleets are down over 60 per cent and the number of fishers is down over 70 per cent. Further to this, natural capture has severely dwindled.
This reduction has hurt the livelihood of many First Nations people, causing high levels of unemployment, forcing migration to the cities, and the disruption of life and culture.
The opportunity to move hydrocarbon by way of a pipeline from Alberta to B.C., and to an associated port, can bring new economic prospects to the region. Innovation and technology in the oil sector has changed for the best.
In 2015, with support from government and industry, we set up the Coastal Emergency Response Working Group to identify the key concerns and develop initiatives that protected the environment while growing the economy. I was proud to co-chair this group of coastal First Nation leadership and staff, experts from communities with traditional knowledge, scientists, government and industry.
We had representation from almost all of the leaders in the region. It did not matter if the participants were for or against development – the goal was to keep people informed and ensure discussions were objective, transparent and positive. Everyone was working together, developing plans for marine protection and enhancements for emergency response. Local knowledge was used to ensure coastlines and sensitive ecosystems would be protected for generations to come. We were constructive, we were productive and we were optimistic.
Then, in November 2016, the federal government announced they were moving ahead with legislation to ban oil tanker traffic off the coast of northwest B.C. – in came Bill C-48. The government seemed ready to impose a solution on our communities without real consultation.
This process has been more of a convincing of the minds, rather than progressive discussions around what the options were, or what approaches our First Nation leaders wanted to see. The transport minister made it so that you were either for or against the moratorium. All the while we had been working together to provide options that could address everyone’s concerns.
Unfortunately, when Bill C-48 was announced we became divided. Some argued we should put the tanker moratorium in place so the government would work with us on other kinds of environmental risks and concerns of environmental damage, such as port growth without adequate marine safety infrastructure. Others said they were against the moratorium because they did not want the government to take away a potential economic opportunity. Those in opposition said this went against our Aboriginal rights, and that the government had no right to dictate to us where and how we developed our economies.
For me the process is wrong — communities should be empowered to work together to examine issues and develop solutions. Our experience with the federal government coming to our territory and imposing their policies is that it does not work, and never has.
Bill C-48 has put many leaders and decision-makers in an extremely difficult situation. It is easy to say yes to the moratorium. Why? Because it’s easier to go with the status quo to avoid the backlash and judgment of being pro-development.
I urge leaders that are for the moratorium to rethink their decision and find some common ground to come together and solve these issues together. This is not happening and the narrative is completely one-sided. I don’t blame the protestors or the water protectors. The government’s poor process has a lot to do with why there is now division within our country and within Indigenous communities. One day I fear this animosity will result in someone being seriously hurt. That’s how bad I have seen it get, and that is how bad I have experienced it myself.
Bill C-48 is causing immense division, anger and resentment amongst Canadians. I urge all of us, First Nation leaders, federal, provincial and municipal politicians, and industry, to start coming together and work to find alternative solutions to the proposed moratorium.
We need to find a way to work together – Bill C-48 has only served to divide us.
Chris Sankey is a member and former Councillor of the Lax Kw’Alaams Band. He currently works for Blackfish Environmental.