Rainforest Solutions Project

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


BC’s first Indigenous Nations awaken

April 9, 2009

(Victoria, BC) – As if roused from a winter’s sleep, reporters grumbled their way to the ornate rotunda of the B.C. legislature last week.

Yet another ceremony was being held to mark the Great Bear Rainforest plan, a unique “government-to-government” regime covering a coastal region the size of Ireland. A deal protecting half of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest and establishing strict resource rules on the other half was finally complete, with the blessing of Greenpeace, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club. Yawn.

To liven things up for TV, Forests Minister Pat Bell ceremonially stomped on a little digital “countdown clock” that has been on his desk since the preliminary deal was reached in 2006. March 31 was deadline day, and the deadline had been met.

The other “government” was represented by chief negotiators for more than 20 coastal aboriginal groups, from the Alaska panhandle down to Comox on Vancouver Island. Art Sterritt of the northern Coastal First Nations and Dallas Smith of the mid-coast Nanwakolas Council represent what will likely be the first Indigenous Nations to emerge in B.C.

To get this framework agreement, the B.C. government has committed to co-management for the region. Protected areas are drawn largely on cultural lines, with a new category of “conservancies” banning industrial logging, mining and all but local hydroelectric projects. The rest is subject to “ecosystem-based” management, which generally means helicopters and barges rather than roadbuilding.

Sterritt credited Premier Gordon Campbell for getting past “a rocky start” to demonstrate due respect for aboriginal rights and title. But he reserved his highest praise for the late Comox MLA Stan Hagen.

“It was that early relationship, and I think at that time it was called the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management,” Sterritt said. “That’s what we have today, sustainable resource management in the Great Bear Rainforest, and Stan’s spirit is with us.”

The B.C. government views the North and Central Coast as a model for the new system contemplated by the proposed Recognition and Reconciliation Act. Indigenous Nations such as Tsimshian, Kwakiutl and Haida are likely to be the first to emerge, starting as soon as this year.

Speaking of great bears, the recent debate over bear hunting is instructive. Two weeks ago Environment Minister Barry Penner announced an expansion of no-hunting areas for grizzly and black bears on the coast. This came despite objections from Sterritt, who joined Humane Society International in calling for a total ban on “trophy hunting” for grizzlies in particular.

Smith sided with the government, arguing that his people have a historic right to hunt bears for ceremonial purposes, and a practical need to control bear interactions with human settlement.

Penner made the ultimate decision to preserve limited lottery hunting for grizzlies, a demonstration that the Crown still retains the final say in a “government-to-government” arrangement.

For Sterritt and Smith, the “terrestrial planning” is only the first phase. The next goal is to present a united front to Ottawa and reach a similar deal giving aboriginal leaders a say over coastal waters.