The free, prior and informed consent of Saik’uz First Nation must be obtained before proceeding with any forestry or resource development within its territory.
Leaders of the Indigenous community located south of Vanderhoof held a news conference in Prince George on Friday, Oct. 15, declaring forest management in their territory must change immediately.
Chief Priscilla Mueller was joined with Councillors Jackie Thomas, Rodney Teed and Jasmine Thomas at the House of Ancestors, where their new documentary ‘Old Growth, New Beginnings’ premiered.
Mueller said they view the duty to protect the forests, waterways and lands in their territory as a sacred responsibility passed down to them by their ancestors.
She added that the fish, animals, plants, and berries would feed them throughout the year, with medicinal plants keeping them healthy and well.
“The problem is past governments took that responsibility from us by forcing us onto reservations and making it unlawful for us to leave these reservations. They did this so they could extract our resources, unimpeded,” Mueller said.
“The cause is decades of mismanagement through unsustainable development—large clear cuts and monoculture tree plantations as far as the eye can see. So today, we are announcing that these practices will no longer take place in our territory.”
The 13-minute documentary showed footage of barren landscape in Saik’uz territory over one million hectares in size.
About 800,000 hectares of that is forested land.
“Saik’uz territory is logged out—we have no more old-growth trees,” said environmental monitoring team member Reese Patrick.
“With all the fire, the beetle, and industry coming in, we have nothing left with our territory.”
Jackie Thomas spoke how their landscape used to contain diversity with all kinds of animals including moose, and fish. “And now it’s not like that,” she said.
Patrick explained how Saik’uz’s environmental monitoring team does a walk-through of the forest before logging occurs and makes several recommendations.
Most of them never do come to life.
“There’s some blocks that we advocated really hard for to get some changes, and unfortunately, they weren’t implemented,” said land and resource manager Kasandra Johnny-Turbide.
“It wasn’t just the recent cut blocks but the also the various stages of cut blocks that have happened over time and changing that ecosystem that was once there.”
Elders described how their parents would gather medicine right from their backyard, and now they can’t do that anymore, having to travel further and further.
James Thomas said it brings tears to his eyes to see Saik’uz territory being turned into “one big pine tree plantation.”
“We’re not going to take this anymore where people come in and pillage the land and leave it barren and walk out of here,” Mueller said.
Saik’uz member and consultant Barry Vickers maintained they are not opposed to forestry but want to make sure it is done in an environmentally sustainable way.
He said while they have a positive relationship and a joint planning process agreement with Nechako Lumber that ensures Saik’uz’s environmental stewardship principles are adhered to, that is not the case with all forest companies in the region.
After the documentary, Jasmine Thomas noted alarm bells are going off in the courts as per a recent supreme court ruling on Blueberry River First Nation’s treaty rights that found B.C. approved industrial development without their approval.
There are also alarm bells on the land base in the Fairy Creek watershed, where protests to protect one of the last old-growth watersheds on Vancouver Island have erupted.
“We have heard Premier John Horgan state the first step in protecting old-growth must be respecting Indigenous people’s land management rights in their territories,” Thomas said.
“That sounds promising, but again we have heard so many promises and of not so immediate measures.”
“There are solutions and opportunities ahead of us so that we can collectively work towards new beginnings and outgrow old ways of doing business as usual,” she continued.
Saik’uz participates in the forest economy in various ways from harvesting timber commercially to manufacturing and environmental monitoring, Thomas said noting there are opportunities for licensees to work with them and build healthy relationships and a sustainable forest economy.
“I need a land base to exercise my rights as an Indigenous woman who has a responsibility and direct relationship with the land,” Thomas said, visibly holding back tears. “We can’t move forward on a path that might not exist in my daughter’s lifetime or even mine.”
The forest resource declaration also requires the province to immediately protect areas of high forest biodiversity value within Saik’uz territory on an interim basis until Saik’uz, B.C. and other Carrier Sekani First Nations conclude a resource management planning process.
Rehabilitation and restoration projects must be immediately co-developed by Saik’uz and B.C. and implemented.
“Starting today, things in our territory will be done our way, the right way,” Mueller said.
“The best traditions of the past combined with the best of forest and resource management practices of today.”