The Okanagan Valley is an example of the growing influence of Indigenous communities on water management policy, according to the strategic development manager of the First Nations Fisheries Council.
Deana Machin says the Okanagan Nation Alliance has taken an active leadership role that other First Nations communities would like to mirror but lack the resources and budget to emulate.
“The Okanagan is the rare exception, but generally there is a low level of collaboration between First Nations and the various levels of government on a range of water issues facing their traditional territories,” said Machin.
She said a survey done by the FNFC in 2016 reinforced that reality, noting that many First Nations communities have less than $30,000 to budget for water studies and policy research.
In comparison, the ONA has established working links with government agencies, has representation on the Okanagan Basin Water Board, and has taken on the task starting in the mid-1990s to revive the declining sockeye run in the Okanagan River through water flow management initiatives and development of a fry hatchery.
While Machin acknowledged such efforts seem far away in possibility for other First Nations communities, she and other speakers also made it clear at the recent Environmental Flow Needs conference on water management earlier this month that the Indigenous people’s traditional territory rights have gained heightened legal recognition and their input can no longer be ignored by water users, water purveyors and government environment agencies.
“First Nations need to be involved in the process at the beginning rather than the end,” Machin said. “To leave us out until the end of the process is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
Conference speaker Deborah Curran, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said that participation is becoming more legally enshrined based on recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada related to legal recognition of traditional Indigenous people’s territorial rights.
Curran said we are moving to a multi-judicial society where traditional territorial rights for First Nations are taking an equal standing with established colonial law.
She cited two recent examples of this, a decision in 2014 by the environmental appeal board to reject a groundwater license approval for a fracking operation in traditional territories near Fort Nelson based on potential negative impact to local First Nations water use rights.
The other is the NDP government stipulating that beyond 2021, any coastal fish farm licenses will require the approval consent of the Indigenous community if it falls within their territorial rights.
“Indigenous laws exist in and among themselves and are not influenced directly by colonial laws,” said Curran, who noted UVIC is about to become the first university in the world to establish an Indigenous law degree program.
Makin said First Nations communities have been making water management decisions for thousands of years, and have done so within the context of valuing water as a central part of their co-existence with the environment.
“So many of our cultural and social practices evolve from water. Our rights to our water concern the impact on fish, such a big part of our cultural identity, our transportaton routes and trapping lines both historially and currently,” she said.
She said events like the recent water conference help create lines of communication and bring people together, rather than be stalemated in opposing viewpoints.
Ted White, B.C.’s comptroller of water rights, also spoke at the conference about the new influences on water management practices, starting with adoption of the Water Sustainability Act by the province in 2016.
“We are being asked to go in some places that are a little uncomfortable from the past regulatory process, and it takes some time to build up trust and establish relationships,” he said.
One of those uncomfortable areas, he noted, was groundwater licensing, which were given out historically with little concern about the impact on surface water, which is now no longer the case.
“I have been told as a government employee to embrace this change and move forward. And we all need to build that pathway together.”