In May I spent time with colleagues from the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research in Treaty 8 territory in northeastern BC listening to Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents talk about the cumulative effects of development projects on the health of their land and communities. Over the past few decades the region has experienced an unprecedented level of industrial activity, including mining, clear cutting, roadbuilding, dam construction, oil and gas development, and waste disposal. In order to help us better understand the impacts of all these projects on the ground, our friend Bud Napoleon, who is a member of Saulteau First Nation, took us out in his truck into the mountains for a few days.
Bud is an expert hunter and trapper, a former chief, and currently works as an environmental monitor for his nation. The first morning we went out, he pointed out a trail on the mountain where his parents used to take him and his siblings from the time they were very young on horseback into the mountains to hunt and trap, often for weeks at a time. They would set up camp in the bush, hunt moose, elk, deer and smaller animals, and then skin them and tan the hides by hand. Some of the meat would be consumed fresh, and some of it smoked and dried to be transported home or stored in a cache to be retrieved later.
Many of the places that Bud used to hunt and trap with his family and later on his own have been radically transformed by various industrial projects such as the Bennet dam, numerous oil and gas wells, pipelines, a mountain-top wind farm, clear cuts, and a criss-cross of roads and seismic lines that cut through the bush. While we were out on the land, Bud constantly looked for signs of animal presence in the places we traveled through. He told us that all of the development has drastically reduced the numbers of wildlife on the land. At the wind farm, he walked around the turbines, looking for animal tracks in the dirt or for any bite-marks from animals on the leaves of nearby bushes. He found no signs at all, and speculated that there might be something about the turbines that kept the animals away.
One clear cut that we visited was stripped bare of trees but some tall stumps had been left standing. Bud told us that the forestry company biologists left the stumps standing because they believed that the martens would continue to nest in them, despite the devastation of the surrounding habitat. It made him furious, he told us, that the biologists would make this argument: “How can they think that the martens will survive in a clear cut?” he asked us, “What are they supposed to eat?”
At various points on our drive we saw signs warning “Do Not Enter: Poison Gas.” “The only problem with the signs” Bud told us, “is that animals can’t read.” We did see some animals on the borders of the various development projects we visited: a couple of elk at dusk standing beside a pipeline and a little bear cub halfway up a tree a short distance from a gas well. Bud, who reads the land like a book, also saw many signs of wildlife all around that were invisible to me. He kept pointing out tracks and scat, and at one point showed me some fresh marks on the leaves of a bush which he said indicated that a moose had been there recently. He told me that it must have been an older moose because the way that the leaves were torn indicated that the animal had dull teeth, a characteristic of an older moose whose teeth have already done lots of chewing.
Wherever we went, Bud commented on how the landscape might interact with wildlife. We saw a number of tailings ponds that were fenced in. Bud told us that until a few years ago the tailings ponds had been open and that the moose and other animals drank from them until a number of hunters and trappers who witnessed what was happening complained to the companies. Bud said that, as an environmental monitor for his nation, he is able to make recommendations to mitigate the impact of projects on wildlife (for example to erect fences around tailings ponds or to reroute a pipeline away from a moose salt lick) but that he feels powerless to stop the rapid and overwhelming pace of development in his territory. Sometimes, he said, the feeling of seeing the damage on the land was so bad that he didn’t know whether he wanted “to cry or to punch someone.”
Many Treaty 8 First Nations members in northeastern BC are working hard to slow the pace of development and to restore the ecological integrity of the region. Bud is actively involved in trying to halt the Site C dam from being built on the Peace River and has attended a number of the hearings in Vancouver for the lawsuit launched in Federal Court by the West Moberly, Doig River and Prophet River First Nations, challenging the approval of the dam. Blueberry River First Nation filed a groundbreaking lawsuit earlier this year arguing that the adverse cumulative effects of industrial development in their territory violate their treaty rights. The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations initiated a successful caribou restoration project to fight the depletion of caribou numbers in the South Peace region. Bud’s nephew, who we met on our tour through the mountains, is part of this project. In spite of these efforts however, new projects continue to go forward and the territory is carrying a heavy industrial burden.
The experience of being out on the land learning from Bud is one of the most powerful that I have had as an environmental lawyer. It personalized and brought to life issues I have been reading about from my computer screen for days, weeks and months. I’m deeply grateful to him for taking the time to show me his territory through his knowledgeable and concerned eyes.
By Hannah Askew, Staff Counsel