B.C. Election 2017

B.C. mega-bridge project ignores the rights of local First Nation

Government tunnel vision still excludes Indigenous peoples when it matters most
Photo: New bridge rendering (May 2013, updated Sept 2015), B.C. Ministry of Transportation

On Monday, First Nations leaders from across B.C.held a press conference to call on voters to defeat Christy Clark and the Liberals in the upcoming May 9th provincial election. The Musqueam First Nation, some of whose members were present at the “Anyone But Clark” presser, are incensed and frustrated following years of neglect and blatant disregard by the governments of Canada and British Columbia.

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The latest transgression is the lack of consultation concerning the George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project on the southern arm of the Fraser River, which resides squarely within Musqueam traditional territory.

The Crown, short for Canada and British Columbia in this case, has a duty to consult where Indigenous right and title exist.

The Musqueam, without question, have proven occupation and use, specifically fishing rights, in the area where the $3.5-billion, 10-lane, three-kilometre bridge is set to replace the George Massey Tunnel connecting the municipalities of Richmond and Delta.

Musqueam ‘will raise the bar on all future projects’

The project has already received environmental assessment approval from B.C. and is reportedly set for completion by 2022, a fairly tight timeline for a mega-bridge.

Near the top of the Musqueam’s list of concerns is the potential dredging of the Fraser River for the project, which would significantly affect the largest wild salmon run in B.C.

In February, the Trudeau government quietly turned down a request from Metro Vancouver mayors, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the mega-project, for a federal environmental review panel process. Both the provincial and federal governments have ignored the wishes of municipal governments.

The short answer is Canada, and by extension its provinces, does not wish to include Indigenous peoples when it matters most.

And, in this time of so-called reconciliation, they have also ignored the basic rights of Indigenous peoples. (Being a First Nation within Metro Vancouver’s city limits sometimes means the local and provincial governments actively ignore Aboriginal rights and title, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the needs of urban-dwelling Indigenous peoples.)

When the B.C. government announced the beginning of construction work in early April, the Musqueam First Nation felt it had no choice but to speak up formally and did so in the form of a press release.

“Musqueam will not stand for the continued degradation of our lands and waters. The B.C. and Canadian government have much work to do with us to ensure the GMT [George Massey Tunnel] project can proceed according to Musqueam conditions,” stated Wayne Sparrow, chief councillor of the Musqueam Indian Band.

“Musqueam is leading in areas of stewardship and management in our territory and will raise the bar on all future projects in Musqueam territory. We are not against development, but it must be done in ways that include Musqueam values, and ensures the protection of our rights.”

Rights already won in court

This may all sound familiar. In 1992, the Musqueam won at the Supreme Court of Canada in the R. v. Sparrow decision, which upheld Aboriginal rights including fishing. Along the way, they scored victories at every jurisdictional level, which Canada appealed up to the final Supreme Court decision.

Bolstering that decision are the Delgamuukw (1997) and Tsilhqot'in (2014) court decisions. The former establishes the existence of Indigenous right and title, and the latter solidifies the need for Crown consultation with Indigenous nations before any project is finalized.

The severe impact of the bridge on the alluvial soil and marshlands has been pointed out extensively.

How could a project of the magnitude of the bridge replacement have received environmental assessment approval without so much as a letter of intent sent to the Musqueam?

The short answer is Canada, and by extension its provinces, does not wish to include Indigenous peoples when it matters most, particularly when it comes to nations in urban settings.

Canada’s provincial and federal leaders continue to allow corporations access to areas where no treaty exists despite definitive language from the Supreme Court of Canada on the matter of Indigenous title.

“Occupation may be established in a variety of ways, ranging from the construction of dwellings through cultivation and enclosure of fields to regular use of definite tracts of land for hunting, fishing or otherwise exploiting its resources,” reads paragraph 149 of the Delgamuukw decision.

Continuous development

Other projects in development are being contested in B.C. at this time.

The South Fraser Perimeter Road, a new highway connecting the Vancouver suburbs of Surrey and Delta, faces a lawsuit. It is said to disturb heritage and grave sites. This 80-kilometre road is another example of a project infringing on rights, revealing the current provincial government’s attitude toward Indigenous input and its reluctance to live up to established legal precedent.

No matter what the outcome of this project, the Musqueam deserve a seat at the table.

Supporters of the George Massey Tunnel replacement project claim it is needed to increase the flow of traffic. But the decision-makers pushing for it seem to have industry’s needs in mind, while maintaining the long B.C. tradition of forgetting about the rights and needs of Indigenous peoples.

When the project was initially rolled out, the B.C. government was asked by Port Metro Vancouver to make the bridge higher to allow for natural gas tankers, as reported in the Vancouver Sun in 2015.

This despite the lack of any sort of LNG export terminal on the south Fraser River, declining traffic through the existing tunnel and the questionable foundation the bridge would rest upon.

The severe impact of the bridge on the alluvial soil and marshlands has been pointed out extensively.

Opponents of the project have pointed to the significantly lower cost of enlarging the existing tunnel and creating a rapid transit route from Richmond to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.

No matter what the outcome of this project, the Musqueam deserve a seat at the table.

Only then will the seeds be aligned properly in the garden that is our collective future.

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