PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. – A new federal framework giving Indigenous communities a partnership in protecting and supervising Canada’s north and central Pacific coast is a positive step toward reconciliation, the president of the Coastal First Nations says.
Marilyn Slett, who is also chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation in B.C., says the framework announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday will formalize a conservation role that Indigenous communities have been filling for millenniums.
In 2016, the Heiltsuk First Nation responded when the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground near Bella Bella, spilling thousands of litres of fuel into same area where the community gathers much of its food.
“Our communities are the first responders, we’re out there regardless. But what we’ve noticed, and certainly with the Nathan E. Stewart, in our experience there hasn’t been a formal role around marine response,” Slett said.
“So this is something that will definitely address that and address the needs and the infrastructure requirements in our communities.”
Trudeau made the announcement in Prince Rupert as part of a celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day.
The agreement between the federal government and 14 coastal First Nations launches a partnership on marine initiatives that the government said will advance reconciliation and protect an area covering two-thirds of the B.C. coast.
Trudeau said the First Nations and the federal government have agreed to co-ordinate management and conservation of the ocean, including developing a network of marine protected areas while creating a path towards reconciliation.
“In understanding that the expertise, the depth of knowledge and understanding that needs to be applied here exists in the form of the elders, of the young people, of the leaders, of the citizens, of the individuals, of the communities who’ve lived here forever,” Trudeau said.
The reconciliation agreement will help Canada deliver on the promise of collaborative management to protect and preserve the northern and central coast, he said, adding it’s a template for other First Nations to move towards reconciliation.
“We will do this hand-in-hand with Indigenous Peoples, understanding that they are fundamental and essential partnerships in … how we manage, how we create protections, how we reflect on the use of our oceans.”
He said the framework agreement sets the bar on how the government will move forward in its relations with Indigenous groups.
“I am incredibly humbled to be able to stand here with these extraordinary leaders to say, ‘Yes, we are doing this the right way, we are doing this together.’ “
Slett said her First Nations’ first priority under the framework will be Indigenous-led marine response plans, including making sure community members have training, employment and procurement opportunities in the industry.
First Nations will also play roles in shipping management and determining which areas need protection under the framework.
“Our communities, we’re all unique and we’re in different locations but we have the same concerns around threats to the ecosystem,” she said.
The agreement will help protect Canada’s Northern Shelf bioregion, including Haida Gwaii, the north and central coast of B.C. and northern Vancouver Island.
It also includes an agreement on what’s called marine spatial planning, which attempts to balance the increased demand for human activities with the need to protect marine ecosystems.