BC’s plan to protect old growth forests from logging is increasingly looking like an enormous failure, after the government revealed almost no First Nations actually signed on to the proposal within a self-imposed deadline.
The Ministry of Forests admitted last week that most of BC’s 204 First Nations demanded more time from government than the 30 days the province gave them to decide whether to accept plans to defer 2.6 million hectares of old growth trees from logging on their traditional territories.
This development surprised almost no one, given that Indigenous leaders had complained from the moment government announced the plan that the timeline was unfair and unworkable.
Still, the government tried its best to pretend things weren’t quite as bad as they appeared.
“The province is making progress on the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel in partnership with First Nations,” read the ministry’s news release.
It claimed “the vast majority of First Nations rights and title holders have expressed that they want to engage on old-growth management in their territories.”
You had to dig deeper into the 1,835 words of ministry doublespeak, misdirection and mistruths to get the real picture: The majority of 161 First Nations that expressed a desire to “engage” also told government to take its 30-day deadline, as well as its insulting progress, and stuff it.
The province could cite only one actual First Nation that had responded in full by the deadline, the Huu-ay-aht First Nation near Port Alberni.
Even that was only a partial success story for the province, because while the Huu-ay-aht had accepted 96 per cent of BC’s recommended deferrals in its territory, it had also rejected four per cent and informed the province it planned to log those remaining old growth trees to provide jobs and economic stability for its members.
Other First Nations called government out for attempting to sugarcoat what is an unpalatable situation for their members.
The Syilx Oganagan Nation said government’s misleading press release, which attempted to paint its participation as positive, “undermines and destabilizes” the ongoing work. Worse, it called the ministry’s consultation “inadequate and superficial,” its old growth maps “inaccurate” and its entire approach to the old growth deferrals “ineffective and often skewed.”
“The Syilx Okanagan Nation are deeply concerned and disappointed by the recent announcement by the Province of BC that claims to have engaged and consulted with 161 First Nations regarding old growth logging deferrals,” it said in a statement.
“Instead, of the 161 Nations that were ‘heard from’ on this process, most are fully opposed, and many have been deeply impacted by the deferrals.”
Not done merely shredding the ministry’s credibility, the nation then moved on to informing the government that it was withdrawing from the process altogether.
“The Syilx Nation formally rejects the BC process to identify Old Growth deferral areas and those areas identified by BC will not impact the Syilx Nation’s strategy to ensure our forests, including Old Growth areas will continue to exist for many generations to come,” read the statement.
So if you’re keeping score, there’s currently zero First Nations in support of BC’s current old growth protection plan, one that’s partially accepted the idea but wants to continue logging some old growth trees, one that’s completely dropped out of the plan, and a host of organizations like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, BC First Nations Forestry Council and Squamish Nation that have told government its entire approach is insulting and should be scrapped in favour of something better.
If that’s “progress” to the forests ministry, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.
A common refrain from First Nations is that they are being asked to defer control of their forests for several years without any idea of the economic impact, with very little time to consider the consequences, and with paltry financial help from the provincial government to hire the experts required to assist them in their decision-making.
Unfortunately, BC took no steps to rectify those problems in its latest update.
It failed to increase the financial assistance available to the nations, which currently sits at $12 million, or an average of less than $60,000 per nation. And it failed to set a new timeline that might be agreeable to the nations.
Instead, BC’s entire old growth protection is now drifting rudderless, without any new dates, funding or ideas to bring Indigenous nations on board.
The BC government has two options left, and neither of them are good.
It could forcibly approve the 2.6 million hectares of old growth trees over the objections of First Nations. The province would soon find itself in court, where it would have to try and argue it is acting in a larger public interest, while also defending its shoddy consultation process against accusations it failed to obtain free, prior, and informed consent in violation of the UNDRIP principles BC enshrined into law.
Or, the province could keep chugging blindly ahead, without timelines, money or hope that 204 nations are actually going to sign on to this thing. As the months tick away, existing forestry companies will continue to log the old growth forests at a rate of 50,000 hectares per year.
Both are bad outcomes.
The BC government has no one to blame but itself for the position it finds itself in. Its old growth plan took 18 months to craft but is a remarkably sloppy and arrogant bit of policy-making that is disintegrating in front of its eyes.
To save it, the government is going to have to put renewed money and effort behind meaningful consultation with First Nations. And in the meantime, it should probably stop sending out press releases filled with lies that anger the very Indigenous leaders it's trying to engage.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.