VICTORIA, B.C. – Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats continue to face widespread criticism in northeast British Columbia over the government’s attempts to introduce plans to save threatened caribou herds.
Political friends and foes say deep concerns remain about plans to save jobs and the caribou, calling last month’s introduction of an interim moratorium on new resource development a fence-mending stalling tactic.
Indigenous leaders said they have become the scapegoats of the government’s failure to inform the public about last spring’s caribou recovery plan.
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“They negotiated the agreement with Canada and then when they were done negotiating they came out and dropped the bomb on the public,” said Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations, one of two Indigenous groups included in the original caribou draft partnership agreement.
“What B.C. should have done, which we advised them to do, was to be informing the people of what was happening as they were going along,” he said. “What wound up happening is the First Nations, we got thrown under the bus and we got blamed for everything.”
Local politicians, including Mike Bernier, the legislature member for Peace River South, and Bob Zimmer, the MP for Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, said silence from the B.C. and federal governments along with limited public participation spread fears of job losses and restrictions to the cherished back country for hunters, hikers and snowmobilers.
Bernier, who represents the Dawson Creek area for the Opposition B.C. Liberals, said tensions among residents are still high despite the government’s appointment of Blair Lekstrom, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister who produced a report that resulted in the interim moratorium after recommending further public consultation about caribou recovery.
“Everybody’s just throwing their hands up, saying ‘You’ve created a mess and now nobody looks like they want to fix it,’ ” said Bernier. “The No. 1 comment I hear is for the premier to allow this to continue on without having public input when he should have known all the problems, that’s what really upset people.”
Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille said Horgan’s appointment of Lekstrom, who is a member of Dawson Creek council, has given communities an unofficial seat at the negotiating table after being ignored by the B.C. government.
“To this date, we still don’t have a seat with government, with the First Nations, with the federal or provincial governments to discuss any of this other than Blair Lekstrom getting involved and the premier saying that I am going to appoint Blair Lekstrom as the go-between between myself, as premier, and the citizens of the northeast.”
Environmental groups said they cheered April’s draft agreement to protect caribou from the threat of extinction, but now they say time is running out for the herds after the government backed down to industry and public pressure.
“I would love to believe that is exactly what the province says, which is they just need a little more time and then they’re going to be signing the partnership agreement,” said Charlotte Dawe, a Wilderness Committee campaigner. “However, the sensitive time and the fact the B.C. government has, in a sense, caved in to industry and the push back by delaying the signing of the partnership agreements makes me worried.”
Horgan was not available for comment but last month in announcing the moratorium he said federal officials have indicated support for B.C.’s plan as it gives the province “the latitude … to find a way forward that’s in the interests of the community and the caribou.”
The province hopes to wrap up consultations before Christmas, Horgan said.
Documents released with last spring’s draft partnership estimated about 220 caribou remain in the south Peace area.
The documents say the region has six caribou herds but numbers have declined from about 800 animals almost 20 years ago to about 220. West Moberly and Saulteau elders recall when the Peace region was covered by a “sea of caribou,” the documents say.
Southern mountain caribou were designated as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2003.
In May 2018, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said southern mountain caribou faced an “imminent threat” to recovery in 10 local population units across British Columbia. That determination set the stage for the federal government to issue an emergency order to protect the caribou, which could include closing off habitat areas to economic and public activity.
McKenna said in a statement this week that saving southern mountain caribou requires urgent action or the animals could be lost forever.
“We will continue to work with First Nations and the province, and engage with local communities and industry, to ensure that this iconic species gets the help that it needs, while also protecting jobs and businesses in B.C.,” she said.
Industry groups, including the Mining Association of B.C. and the Council of Forest Industries, welcomed the interim moratorium, saying more time is needed to fully address issues facing caribou recovery, including the consideration of economic and social issues in a region with large-scale coal mining and timber operations.
Geoff Morrison, B.C.’s Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the moratorium does not impact area oil and gas operations, but the organization supports ongoing efforts to recover caribou herds.
“We think that keeping all interests informed is important,” said Morrison. “We should be taking into account potential socio-economic impacts into resource development communities.”
Willson said he’s heard little from the B.C. government since the release of Lekstrom’s report.
“The reality of the fact is if we want caribou we have to change what we’re doing,” he said.