FORT ST. JOHN â Widespread opposition from landowners in the Peace has nixed a bid by four First Nations to initiate a treaty land sharing arrangement in the region similar to one that exists in Saskatchewan.
Doig River, Halfway River, Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations â all signatories to Treaty 8 â had initially won support for a proposal put forward by Scion Strategies Ltd. principal and former Dawson Creek mayor Dale Bumstead that would allow First Nations members to access private land to exercise their treaty rights, including gathering medicines, hunting, fishing, harvesting and holding ceremonies.
However, information spread through a social media campaign by opponents raised concerns among landowners.
âThe proposal being brought forward is to allow First Nations persons access 24/7, 365 days a year at will, without permission, to carry out their cultural activities,â local resident and former dairy farmer Esther Pedersen, now a hay and horse farmer, said in a notice emailed to local residents about the meeting. âThis includes gathering plants and mushrooms, but also includes hunting.â
The notice attracted a raucous crowd to a meeting the Peace River Regional District hosted at the Pomeroy Hotel in Fort St. John, June 8, where the lack of consultation with landowners took centre stage.
âDiscussion and opinion of local landowners and agricultural producers has not occurred,â Landry Womenâs Institute president Lynn Norman wrote in her submission to the committee, noting that the institute isnât against treaty land sharing in itself but landowners need to be consulted.
The Peace River District Womenâs Institute expressed similar sentiments in its statement.
âPeace River District Womenâs Institutes is concerned that the rural landowners were not informed of this concept of âTreaty Land Sharing,ââ says institute secretary Jill Copes. âMost landowners are willing to allow people on their land, but with permission and respect. âŚ The RD has also indicated that they wouldÂ re-establish the Agriculture Advisory Committee to provide a voice for the rural residents.â
The proposed Treaty Land Sharing Network is modelled on a similar but unaffiliated initiative in Saskatchewan that was launched in July 2021. While it has been celebrated in the farm media, it didnât come to be without first addressing producer concerns.
âThe idea for the Treaty Land Sharing Network was really a response to diminishing land access for Indigenous people and also very real concerns about safety when it comes to land access,â says co-founder of Saskatchewanâs Treaty Land Sharing Network Valerie Zink. âAnd farmers wanting to come together to create safe spaces that Indigenous people can access.â
Discussions with ranchers and producers in the area about the network began in 2018 and those involved established partnerships with First Nationsâ community leaders as well as other individuals, organizations and tribal councils across Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 communities.
âThe only people who are members of the network are those who want to be, who agree with the principles and protocols of the network,â Zink says. âIt’s an initiative of landholders who wanted to, you know, move forward differently in Saskatchewan and who felt an urge to take some concrete action at a grassroots level. âŚ So, it’s really coming from landholders.â
Because of the positive experiences within and success of the program in Saskatchewan, Zink has been involved in discussions with a group in Alberta that proposed a Treaty Land Sharing Network pilot program in April 2022. However, the group in Saskatchewan was not part of any conversations or consultations on the proposal in BC.
âWe have no affiliation whatsoever with this initiative in BC and just want to be clear about that. Because their process and protocols are very different,â Zink says.
While the network in Saskatchewan was led by landowners, the Peace initiative was led by consultants and landowners left out of the process.
Bumstead attended the June 8 meeting at the invitation of the regional district. He assured the crowd that Indigenous people would need permission from the landowner before accessing the property. Participation from landowners is completely voluntary.
He also noted that the network is merely a concept at this stage with no implementation framework at this time. In Saskatchewan, it took three years from the initial proposal to implementation.
However, the room grew loud with shouting and protests against the idea as Bumstead spoke.
While some ranchers are not entirely against the idea, they would like more information about conditions and liability surrounding their landâs use by First Nations members.
âAll Scion needs is a website and a mailout to all local land title-holders with pamphlets describing what land sharing is and its history,â Pedersen says. âWe surely donât need [government] involved with this process, except maybe to help guarantee landholders are not legally responsible for land-sharing users while on the property and that no extra insurance must be purchased to facilitate land-sharing on any level.â
The meeting was cancelled abruptly an hour after starting when the Fort St. John fire department arrived and the fire marshal deemed the meeting room over capacity.
However, opponents to the proposal were heard. On June 17, the regional district notified Scion Strategies Ltd. that it had withdrawn its support for the Treaty Land Sharing Network.
âThis was never a PRRD-led program, and when residents expressed clearly that they did not want it in this region, the board made the decision to advise Scion Strategies its proposed Treaty Land Sharing Network would not be endorsed by the PRRD as a local government until landowners are in agreement,â the regional district said in a statement.
In addition, the four First Nations involved announced the withdrawal of the proposal on June 28, saying the circulation of âmisinformationâ on social media made it difficult to proceed.
âWhat happened was a large portion of the people up here â landowners â got the idea through misinformation that the First Nations would have access to the land, and we couldn’t stop it,â says Montney rancher Helen Harris. âBut that wasn’t true. That wasn’t what they were proposing. âŚ And if they did want to come and they asked we would probably say sure.â
Harris, along with other landowners, would have been much more receptive to the idea if they were involved in the proposal from the start.
âOur problem with it is that we were not consulted. We were never asked,â Harris says. âWhen you bring a proposal forward, you should invite both parties to the table from the beginning to discuss. And this was the part that we were really offended by. The government does not represent landowners because most of the time their government initiatives are actually burdensome to us.â
On July 14, the PRRD issued an apology to all who attended the June 8 meeting, acknowledging the genuine concerns of landowners and pledging to more open, proactive communication.
Following the meeting, the board received a letter from Prophet River First Nation, Halfway River First Nation, Doig River First Nation and West Moberly First Nation that expressed disappointment over the negative tone of the meeting. The regional district has since apologized directly to those First Nations and meeting attendees.
âWe are disappointed that an initiative intended to bring our communities closer together by building trust and working relationships has resulted in greater division instead,â PRRD board chair Leonard Hiebert says in a statement. âThis situation demonstrates the importance of open and proactive communication, and we commit to working together with our residents and our neighbours to pursue opportunities to build relationships and address concerns as they arise.â
Doig River First Nation were not available to comment before deadline.